Wonkageekathon – GovLabs and the Birth of CityMission

Licensed Under an Attribution Share-Alike License – GovLabs

When big thinkers, designers & coders hack together.

Last month, we were invited to participate in the Inaugural Experiment of GovLabs.

It was a mind-blowing experience! First off, we couldn’t help but be star-struck at all the luminaries milling about from the Civic Tech, Gov 2.0, Open Data and Semantic Web worlds – Tim Berners-Lee, Jim Hendler, David Karger, Laura James, Steve Koonin, Mike Flowers, Beth Noveck, Andrew Rasiej, Anthony Townsend, Carol Coletta, John Seely Brown, Ethan Zuckerman, Ellen Miller, Clay Shirky, Sandy Pentland, Jacob Nigel, Mark Headd – the list goes on.

And having the privilege of being deputized as part of the Hacker Crew was even more thrilling.

Unlike a traditional policy workshop, the GovLab Experiment was unique in that it liberally sprinkled thinkers and doers, not only from the government, industry and academia, but also Civic Hackers as well!  All in all, for the 125+ policy experts, there were 24 Hackers/Designers as well from diverse backgrounds, split across six sessions with 4 Hackers teaming up with 24+ policy experts per session.

Joel (Ontodia/Pediacities Co-Founder) and Nathan (PediaCities Product/Communications Manager) were fortunate enough to be paired together to work on the “We the City” session.

Imagine, there we were – 4 civic hackers, sitting with 25 thought leaders – the very people at the forefront of Gov 2.0 – brainstorming solutions to the challenge of improving two-way communication between citizens and policy makers – ‘Building “We the City”‘.

Our change agent for the “We the City” session was none other than Mike Flowers – Chief Analytics Officer of NYC. And facilitating the proceedings was Dr. Steve Koonin – Director of CUSP, with Andrew Rasiej taking over for the afternoon session.

After a full day of brainstorming – our crew was then given the mandate to build “something” overnight. Talk about pressure!

On Hackathons

As veteran Civic Hackers with a generous share of hackathons under our belts, we’ve come to look at civic hackathons as more of a geek soiree where activists, developers and designers self-select for idea mashups and community building. Every now and then a team actually creates a civic app that has a life beyond the hackathon.

Though there has been some debate on the usefulness of Hackathons and App Challenges, we believe they are of tremendous value – were it not for NYCBigApps, our company wouldn’t be here today.

Granted, Joel and Co-founder Sami Baig had been formulating the idea of PediaCities for three years. But it was BigApps that provided the occasion to escape the rat race to pursue our civic tech dreams.

We’re not saying that App Contests don’t need tweaking, because they do. It gives us pause when we check the BigApps gallery of years past; of the hundreds of submissions entered over the past three years, only a handful exists today.

Hackathons are in a period of evolution, and NYC is constantly tweaking its annual BigApps Challenge to make it better, stronger, faster.

It’s amazing how much NYCBigApps 2013 has evolved over the years (and we know, we’ve been tracking it since its beginning). It started with 170 data files sitting on a web server back in 2009 and in four short years has ramped up to thousands of datasets from various sources, accessible through various APIs, focused by BigIssues put together by panels of expert advisers for this year’s installment.

But the GovLabs interpretation of the Hackathon was truly unique.

Licensed Under an Attribution Share-Alike License – GovLabs


At GovLabs we spent a whole day listening before we started hacking. Before we even made any wireframe sketches we spent the day “marinating” in the issues of how to promote a continuing, sustainable conversation between citizens and policy-maker with our expert panel. The morning session started with Dr. Koonin and Mike Flowers doing a great job of problem definition. This was quickly followed by a lively, animated discussion with everyone participating. It was amazing how the different perspectives of the people in the room really helped focus the problem at hand – it became a mosaic of ideas reminiscent of the parable of the “Blind Men and the Elephant.”  But this time around, those differing perspectives actually helped us Hackers understand the problem much better.

By midday, the “We the City” Hacker crew peeled off and had our own working lunch session. We endeavored to distill the morning’s discussion into a prototype we could realistically design and build in one night. We ended up doing more brainstorming than eating.

Imagine our surprise when we got back to rejoin our expert panel and found that a lot of the things we came up with during the lunch break were exactly what our experts were looking for!

Afternoon discussion from the “We the City” group led to two ideas – Fitbit for the City, and a Public Advocacy Network.  The group then broke off into two separate sub-groups to flesh out the requirements for each idea, with Nathan and Pablo going with the Public Advocacy Network group, and Lenny and Joel going with the Fitbit for the City group. However, when the Hacker crew reconvened to head to the posh overnight Hack pad at the Gild Hotel, we hit upon a way to consolidate the two project ideas into one.

The Birth of CityMission

This was not your average hackathon. GovLab was generous to set us up in two suites in the Gild Hotel and ordered us a round of sushi while we got started fleshing out the design specs and use cases for our prototype. More than the nice hotel rooms, the guidance and insights we had gleaned from the day spent with thoughts leaders helped propel our idea for CityMission. We were motivated by ideas from the “We the City” group for building trust in government through better listening and feedback loops that moved beyond transaction and into citizen collaboration. Building a platform for improving feedback loops around data, personal and public, addressed the requirements of Fitbit for the City. When we struck upon the idea of framing these feedback loops around Missions, we found a way to incorporate requirements of Public Advocacy Network idea as well. The CityMission platform that we began to flesh out could help citizens establish a give and take relationship around data with the government, but it could also be a platform for advocates to leverage data through data-driven missions around a cause important to them.

The development of CityMission was inspired by Joshua Kauffman’s articulation of a new type of civic identity around data and the tagline, “Know yourself, know your city”. The success of our group was possible because of the great ideas from all the experts from “We the City”, but Joshua Kauffman went above and beyond, meeting us just before midnight to help us refine our use cases and messaging as Lenny got started with a super fast prototype deployment.

CityMission connects personal data with urban data, enabling people to see their impact on the city and how the city affects them. CityMission provides tools for people to ask questions about the city and collect data together. CityMission is a platform that aggregates opportunities for data volunteering. A government agency, advocacy organization, or scientific research group can propose a Mission defining the scope of data needed, how personal data will be used, and what participants will get out of volunteering their data. For example, if you sign up for the Quantified Commute mission from the transit agency you can volunteer two weeks of your transit data, helping the transit agency generate better trip demand data, and helping yourself understand how your commute stacks up to your neighbor’s commute. If you volunteer your blood type, this data can be placed in a personal data locker that is only accessed to send you alerts when your blood type is needed in emergencies. Other CityMissions could enlist volunteers to track bird migrations, categorize noise on your block, or take a tree census after a storm.

We all know that lots of personal data is being gathered about us, but it often feels like we don’t have control of how it is used, and the vast stores of public data about the places we live, work, and play in are often inaccessible or unintelligible to us. CityMission turns both of these paradigms on their head by inviting people to volunteer their personal data on their terms, connected to big issues they care about.

Team CityMission:

  • Pablo – User Interface/User Experience Ninja
  • Lenny – Developer Extraordinaire
  • Nathan – Urban Planner and Civic Product Design
  • Joel – Data Wrangler/Geek and all around Civic Hacker

[slideshare id=20437376&doc=citymission-v4-130502203226-phpapp02&w=800]

Prototype URL:


It was a great pleasure to present CityMission to the GovLab summit the following day, and the positive feedback encouraged to move forward with developing CityMission. Next step, adopting the idea for the Project:Connect Hackathon on May 9!

Got an idea for a good City Mission? Let us know in the comments.


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