//Ah – the sweet smell of transparency in local government. In this blog post I’ll take a look at a recently released report that was only made possible by bringing together civic actors and civic hackers. Through that I’ll look at the stigma around the word “hacker” itself – hopefully lending some clarity to an already murky connotation.

//So yes, speaking of transparency – it’s worth noting that I’m a born-and-raised Philadelphian. As such, I’m just going to acknowledge my bias towards the City of Brotherly Love from the get-go here (wit’ the exception of our obvious superiority to other cities on the Eastern Seaboard), Go Birds.

So much of our political information today comes prepackaged. We get it from cable networks’ polarized talking heads, pre-spun by forcing soundbites into campaign narratives.

If you’re one of the few and the proud who still flips through physical newsprint, chances are it’s one of just a few voices occupying the space – especially if it’s a local paper; If you happen to comb through Facebook and Twitter for your political information, chances are your news is coming to you pre-saturated from the echo chamber.

Just like bubbeh used to make; If your political facts have been stewing for hours in their own broth, chances are their going to fall apart when you try to take them out.

In weeks past, we’ve been hit with presidential primary click-bait stories from all directions. This week, who offended whom? How many Pinocchios did so-and-so earn on climate change? Which candidate’s campaign manager complained to the network about airtime during a debate? Who’s the racist /bigot/sellout of the week?

So when a story comes along that shows a bipartisan office actually delivering when ordinary folks are asking for assistance in the form of information– I think it should be heard recognized.

Even more so when it happens on a local level. All too often we get swept away in the national races, forgetting that our local elected officials, judges and representatives’ decision making often impacts our lives much more than the high level issues being discussed a year out from the general election.

It’s Often Transparent in Philadelphia

A few weeks back, Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, published a transparent report on specific voting patterns as a direct response to citizens asking for insight.

While the Schmidt’s office could have stopped at providing raw data to the public, they instead collaborated with civic-minded technologists to shape the data into an easy to use, accessible interactive digital map. Thanks to the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology , the data is now much more accessible (and consumable) for the public at large.

As the office responsible for ensuring fair voting practices, voter registration and education, minimizing fraudulent activity, and so on, the Commissioner’s inboxes, voicemails and mailrooms are inundated with requests for voting data.

A pattern had emerged in recent elections that affected local politics, and as a result citizens wanted some serious insight: not commentary, not summary, but cold hard data.

“…when Philadelphia voters stepped into the voting booth this past May, they could cast up to five votes for candidates from their party for City Council At-Large. [Afterwards,] there were many unanswered questions: Do most voters choose to vote tactically by selecting only one or two candidates they strongly support, or do they seek to utilize their full voting potential and vote for five? How do voting patterns differ in various neighborhoods of the City? What impact does this voting behavior have on the outcome of City Council At-Large elections?” – Bullet Voting in Philadelphia Primary Election 2015 Report

Bullet voting, for the unfamiliar (as I was until this story came along), is an election scenario when two or more equivalent seats on a board, council or committee are up for election at the same time.

Based on the way Philadelphia structures it’s City Council seats At-Large, this comes up every four years (or just as frequently as we’re teased with a post-season run). During the primary, voters may cast up to five votes for candidates in their party vying for one of 7 seats. Here’s Schmidt on the process:

“Bullet Voting has been a well-known but little understood tactic in City Council Elections for a long time. While there has always been a lot of speculation, we’ve never had a way of really showing how it [affects] our overall results.”

That how is pretty important – because it paints a much better picture of how a local political sphere plays out.  While the jury is out on whether the public sees bullet voting as an outlet for voicing discontent with certain candidates or just a way to turn low turnout races into a first-past-the-post scenario, the first step to seeing the bigger picture is to get a hold of raw data.

Finding the How

“In order to answer these questions, the staff in my office manually calculated every individual vote cast on voting machines in the 2015 Primary Election. The Office of Innovation and Technology provided critical assistance with this project by mapping the results, allowing for user-friendly access. With nearly 700,000 total votes cast in the City Council At-Large race by nearly 270,000 voters, this was a massive undertaking and has never been done before.” – City Commissioner Al Schmidt

To do this, staffers combed through those 700,000 anonymized ballots, noting every combination of votes cast for At-Large City Council seats. That data became the backbone of Tuesday’s report.

Each voting machine used produces a Ballot Image Report, “BIR” which is simply a randomized, anonymized print-out of each vote cast. The office staff (a grand total of 5 people) went through every single vote recorded on these BIRs in order to gather the data used in the report.

I reached out to the Commissioner’s office for a sample random BIR to get an idea of what the team was working with. You can see one for reference here – note that the data is in fact anonymized by voter.

So for a timeline, the election occurred this past May, the BIRs became available in June, and the office staff worked publishing the raw data as soon as they could.

“… our internal audit of the results reveals only a small margin of error that is not significant enough to affect the outcome of any ranking. Lastly, in keeping with our commitment to transparency, we are making all of our findings and raw data available to the public.”

To the GIT!

The BIR data was then posted to the city’s publicly available GitHub repository.

GitHub is an open source project management tool that can be used for collaboration between all types of users. Think of it almost like a Google Docs for projects, with features that take into account version control, collaboration and development tasks.

For now, understand that in this scenario, GitHub acts as a common ground for both civic actors and civic hackers. The City posts data sets, which civic hacking groups (made up of involved private citizens) can access freely.

(For a much more articulate description of Git / GitHub, check out Ry’s Git Tutorial, a free Kindle ebook).

Civic Hacking: For moar than just the lulz

So to tell the full story, we can’t just stop at the moment that Schmidt’s office posted the data online. There’s an entire second half of this equation that really needs to be told – the role of the civic hacker.

What is a civic hacker you ask?

Hack for Change.org, a project of Code for America explains that civic hackers can be “urbanists, government staff, developers, designers, community organizers and anyone with the passion to make their city better. They will collaboratively build new solutions using publicly released data, technology, and design processes to improve our communities and the governments that serve them. Anyone can participate; you don’t have to be an expert in technology, you just have to care about your neighborhood and community.”


“Hacking is against the law” – you heard it here folks. Don’t feel obligated to watch the entire thing – just understand that these two have very little clue what they’re talking about on national television.

We hear the term hacker thrown around quite a lot – and usually it involves some sort of negative connotation.

Thanks to movies and television, there’s  at least become an increased public understanding of the black hat / white hat dichotomy (bad guys / good guys), but even that doesn’t tell the whole story…

You might even say it’s not that black and white…

Hackers, whatever their motivation, are at the end of the day problem solvers. When confronted with a challenge, they use the tools at their disposal, as well as an in-depth understanding of the systems at hand to find a solution. There are many flavors of hackers – and not all of them sit behind a Guy Fawkes mask.

Open Government Done Right

While this is no small feat, it should really be noted that Philadelphia (and the Office of the Commissioner in particular) have taken huge steps in recent years, opening avenues for civic hackers to request access to and work with what should be publicly available information.

I should stress the importance of that “work with” part, because it’s not enough for a government actor or office just throw up a transparency summary and call it a day. Having the ability to comb through the data that is driving the decisions of publicly elected officials is huge!

I guess what I’m trying to say here, is that unless there’s an environment in which citizens can hold their elected officials accountable, by way of freedom of access we’re not really living with true transparency.

It’s that freedom of access that made Commissioner Schmidt’s report and the Office of Innovation and Technology’s interactive map a possibility in the first place.

I look at it like an equation – the civic actors (government) provide the raw data to the public, and the civic hackers (acting on behalf of the public) take that data and present it in a way that’s accessible to the non-tech savvy.

That City of Philadelphia GitHub database? That’s one great step in the right direction. Not only can government officials and those ‘in the know’ access this data, but you – yes you – can. Right now if you wanted to.

Go ahead – take a look around. Seriously. It’s amazing what’s out there right now – not just sheet after sheet of data, but literally the building blocks of a city government’s transparency efforts.

I’ll be back soon with some more insight from a few key players in the Philadelphia Open Government/ Open Data / Open Access camp for their feedback on their evolving relationship with public officials.

//Photocred: Code for America via Millennial Magazine