Guest Post by Daniel Ryan, GIGTANK Technologist-in-Residence

When most people hear the word “hacker,” they envision someone illegally breaking into a computer system — typing away gibberish-looking commands into a computer, a la the cult classic movie Hackers. But “hacker” has another definition: an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer.

Last weekend, several dozen of these problem solvers huddled together at the Library’s 4th floor as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking. Chattanooga was one of 95 events around the country where people from many backgrounds gathered together to tackle challenges facing their communities. Locally, four teams were formed to create projects that made 311 data more searchable, visualized crime reports on a map of the city, showed the average income of each ZIP code in Chattanooga, and listed places where folks could pick up local produce from CSAs (Community-supported Agriculture Coops). It is truly impressive how much each team accomplished in such a short time period. Each project will be up on the web in the coming weeks for free public use (keep an eye on the event’s page for updates).

The Hack-a-thon and its resulting projects demonstrate the community and ethos that is building in Chattanooga around Open Data and Civic Hacking. Barely a month after Mayor Berke was sworn in, the city has opened up an open data portal where anyone can download datasets. At first glance, it may not seem obvious how a bunch of spreadsheets can impact the community, but they’re only the foundation of what is possible.

For instance, Philadelphia’s Councilmatic allows citizens to track legislation in their city council. Procure.io, a result of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, adds transparency and efficiency to government purchasing and bidding. Adopt a Hydrant encourages residents to adopt pieces of their community infrastructure, similar to an Adopt-a-Highway program. There are innumerable projects relating to 311 data, from allowing the community to vote on pressing issues to visualizing incoming requests in real-time. These, and more, are the types of projects I expect to see coming out of Chattanooga in the next few years.

One of the core tenets of the civic hacking movement is that all projects be open sourced — which is to say, anyone can use the code, contribute to its improvement or modify it for their own needs. Each Hack-a-thon project will be released on Open Chattanooga’s Github page; the other projects are available on Github as well. Practically speaking, open sourcing civic projects means that communities don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Chattanooga can adopt Councilmatic if it wants to, without having to pay for the software or pay to have a custom solution created. Even better, as the city opens up more of its data, the community itself can put up any of these projects, as well as new ones that we create together. Any project we create can be used by other communities.

Essentially, this is an entire ecosystem of freely available systems for helping citizens have insight into their governments. Even if you weren’t able to be involved this weekend, you can get involved now. Contribute to one of the four projects, get another one started, or just help spread the word about civic hacking.

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Check out more pictures from Open Chattanooga’s National Day of Civic Hacking here.