An ad hoc response to Dan O’Neil

I read Dan O’Neil’s exit interview with Civicist, “An Education in Community Technology.” Many people read and shared it on social media this week.

Here is what Dan has to say about the failure of civic tech:

“Yes, the civic tech movement should be shelved. It has run its course. The models of hack nights and civic apps and techno-determinist solutions have proven ineffective. The dominant social movements of the last five years have next to nothing to do with civic tech. Black Lives Matter, the rise of racist Trumpian political ideas, marriage equity — they owe nothing to civic tech. These forces used consumer-grade technology like Twitter and Facebook to drive their agendas while civic tech people are checking in code to Github.”

I took a minute think about what people I know in civic tech are doing when they check code into GitHub: Helping families get welfare benefits. Helping homeless people find shelter and resources. Analyzing bike crashes. Digging into schools data. What do we gain from comparing this work against Donald Trump, or pitting it against Black Lives Matter?

Dan, my guess is that you don’t believe that we should stop writing code and only use Facebook and Twitter to create change instead. You are leaving Smart Chicago to join AdHoc, “a small software engineering company that came out of the successful effort to rescue after its disastrous initial launch.”

Here is AdHoc’s GitHub page: AdHoc writes write code to help Americans get health-care and veterans get services. They share some of that code as open source software for others. I am glad they do it.

Every week in cities and towns the country, hundreds of people show up at hack nights as volunteers. They are giving their time because they want to work on useful, important work using open-source code, just like AdHoc does.

You describe hack nights as ineffective, and maybe they are. But could we make them more effective? Why should their work be shelved, whereas AdHoc’s work should move forward? Can only for-profit companies and staffed-up nonprofits write code that makes a difference? If so, why?

I have thoughts on these questions. I agree with Dan that hack nights and hackathons fail in many ways, but I also think they offer tremendous value. In my next post, I want to write about What Hack Night Is Good For.