Civic Hacking as Data Activism and Advocacy: A History from Publicity to Open Government Data
The civic hacker tends to be described as anachronistic, an ineffective “white hat” compared to more overtly activist cousins. By contrast, I argue that civic hackers’ politics emerged from a distinct historical milieu and include potentially powerful modes of political participation. The progressive roots of civic data hacking can be found in early 20th-century notions of “publicity” and the right to information movement. Successive waves of activists saw the Internet as a tool for transparency. The framing of openness shifted in meaning from information to data, weakening of mechanisms for accountability even as it opened up new forms of political participation. Drawing on a year of interviews and participant observation, I suggest civic data hacking can be framed as a form of data activism and advocacy: requesting, digesting, contributing to, modeling, and contesting data. I conclude civic hackers are utopian realists involved in the crafting of algorithmic power and discussing ethics of technology design. They may be misunderstood because open data remediates previous forms of openness. In the process, civic hackers transgress established boundaries of political participation.