Five pieces of advice for new civic hackers



The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is getting ready to invest a lot of money in the idea that technology can help scrape the rust from the corroded gears of American democracy.

This being our jam at techPresident, I'm going to put on my editor's hat and editorialize: If you become involved and decide to enter the field of civic hacking, here are five things you ought to know.

The Knight Foundation is expected Tuesday to launch its latest News Challenge, an iterative competition that will end with Knight spreading $5 million in funding across some combination of projects. This year, Knight is focused on "open government" — tech-savvy projects that enable a more transparent, accountable, or participatory government.

Knight has called for an "inspiration" phase of the challenge beginning Tuesday, where people share problems for hackers to think about and success stories they might want to emulate.

After three years covering civic hackers and the tools they build, I've got some advice to share. By the way — and as a disclosure — this isn't all from my time on the sidelines; in 2010 I managed candidate and media partnerships for 10 Questions, Personal Democracy Media's engagement project around the midterm elections, funded by Knight.

1. Every story has already been told.
Someone has already had your ideaFor instance, went through a great many phasesbefore it became what it is now — at least one of which might be exactly what you are interested in doing.

There are three ways you can respond. You can compete with a product that demonstrates an understanding of projects that came before your own, their weaknesses and lessons learned. You can collaborate by building on old code or partnering with the creators of past projects. Or you can do neither of those things, embark upon a redundant enterprise launched in ignorance, and either waste some of your time through inefficiency or all of your time through an avoidable failure. Up to you.



About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit