Computer hacking gets a bum rap. When you see hackers in movies, they are rebellious social outcasts who dress slovenly and have a grudge against somebody or something that has done them wrong. Sometimes the hacker is portrayed as an upscale hipster who hacks for financial gain. Other times, the hacker is merely a terrorist with a high IQ and the ability to crash any government system with a line of code and the push of a button. Maybe that's why I get such odd looks from people when I tell them that my newest obsession is participating in Hackathons.
The Urban Dictionary explains that the act of hacking can also be a positive thing.
"Hack: To program a computer in a clever, virtuosic, and wizardly manner. Ordinary computer jockeys merely write programs; hacking is the domain of digital poets. Hacking is a subtle and arguably mystical art, equal parts wit and technical ability, that is rarely appreciated by non-hackers."
UD goes on to explain that there are three classifications of hackers: "White-hat (hacking for the enjoyment of exploration); Black-hat (hacking to find exploits and system weaknesses); and Grey-hat (someone who is a little of both).
Hackathons focus on White-hat hackers. Sponsor companies lift the veil of secrecy to share their Application Programming Interface (API) code with independent developers who may be the key to innovation in the specific topics featured at each hackathon. In other words, the same code that powers Google maps could be incorporated into an app developed by two kids from Boyle Heights to create a mobile tool that is useful to individuals or a community at large.
In a Fireside Chat with Adam Miller, Founder & CEO of Cornerstone On Demand, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti expressed his thoughts on The Future of LA Tech. Garcetti is proud to be called "The Tech Mayor" and believes that when it comes to governing a city, "technology has changed the entire game, but the fundamentals are still the same." No stranger to Facebook, mobile apps or blogs, Garcetti takes a proactive approach to the use of technology to expedite the operations of running "a large city that is divided into 88 smaller cities." He speaks of LA as being "the creative center of the world" and equates it to a platform because Hollywood is the generator of stories, which can be very helpful to tech companies.
Garcetti wants the world to think of LA as "a place to test their ideas, their products and their stories." He cites the connection to the content production "which is what LA has always been about" and points out that with the enormous ethnic diversity of our population, "marketing your product to LA is the equivalent of marketing your product to the world." Garcetti points out that "LA has always had a real strong tech base, but we have not done enough to market it," he says, adding, "Being LA's first High Tech Mayor is about marketing as much as anything."
Later in the day, Rick Cole, Garcetti's Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation led a panel on Civic Innovation and Entrepreneurship, featuring Tara Tiger Brown (Co-Creator, Represent LA), Catherine Geanuracos (Co-Founder, Hack for LA) and Jim Gilliam (Founder & CEO, Nation Builder). Building on Garcetti's earlier comments, the focus of this panel was to outline some of the plans to operationalize the city's efforts in the tech sector.
Geanuracos worked with Tech for Garcetti during his campaign. Shortly after his election, Geanuracos organized one of the largest hackathons -- Hack for LA -- as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking. She currently runs 6 nation builder sites and knows nearly 70 other people who use Gilliam's software to organize their civic efforts. "There is a convergence of both the old and the new generations thinking about LA in a different way, through intentional involvement," she explains. "People are excited thinking about transportation in new ways. They are excited about new ways of civic engagement using data." As a matter of fact, LA has recently opened all of its data to the public -- for the sake of transparency and for the sake of civic hacking.
According to Gilliam, the problem with civic involvement is that, ultimately, "People feel they are wasting their time. But if you can give them something tangible that they can connect with and see that their involvement has impact, they will get excited and inspired."
As Geanuracos works toward the next iteration Hack for LA, "Part of the goal is to provide inspiration for people who work inside city government systems to work together more effectively. City websites are notoriously horrible -- but they don't have to be like that. Technology and data can speed up the process. But releasing the city data is just the beginning of the process to make all government systems transparent and able to get feedback from the citizens."
Gilliam believes that "There is a cultural problem with people asking for permission, or people asking how government can help them. There has to be a switch where people just take it on themselves to do something." Cole amplified this by pointing out that "All of the things that government does today are the result of radical fights that the people fought to get things done. They were all disruptive models that were initiated by a few people -- radical innovations that were forced on people who did not want to change. We have to connect with each other to make this work."
If all of this talk of civic improvement has made you want to roll up your sleeves and join the civic technology movement, consider participating in the next Hack for LA, December 7th and 8th. For more information, visit: http://www.hackforla.org