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Interview: How civic hackers find creative solutions to problems (Includes interview)

Headlines about hackers focus on malicious acts of stealing data or wresting control of personal devices. Hacking has a positive side — an entryway to greater civic participation and making government work better.

“When I say hack, I mean a creative solution to a problem,” said founder Joshua Tauberer. “[Fixing] a shaky table by folding a piece of newspaper under a table leg is a hack — it’s any creative, unusual solution to a problem.”

Many bills get introduced and die on Capitol Hill, and insiders like lobbyists know what legislation is worth scrutinizing, said Tauberer. GovTrack offers insights on bills and resolutions for groups and people who can’t afford to hire a Hill lobbyist.

In the last two-year tenure of Congress, only 3 percent of bills were made into laws, according to GovTrack data. The current 114th Congress, which began January 6 has only passed 1 percent of bills so far.

Why is there gridlock with Capitol HIll lawmaking? Legislators who have had long tenures in Washington have gotten “smarter” and use “more sophisticated” negotiating tactics, Tauberer said. “They can think 20 steps head. Instead of spending time on policy, time is spent on forecasting.”

Tauberer added that lawmakers use “weird” ways of passing laws by folding them into appropriations bills.

In contrast, lawmaking on the state level is “more good than bad,” said Karen Suhaka who collects and shares state-level through the Bill Track 50 tool.

GovTrack, which used to collect state voting information has happily ceded that responsibility to Suhaka’s company LegiNation.

Each of the 50 states have a lot of autonomy and try different solutions to public issues and good ideas “rise to the top,” said Suhaka. The state legislatures are “chugging right along” and of the roughly 200,000 bills introduced nationwide, 20,000 to 30,000 become law.

Suhaka said that citizen groups have taken civic data to influence legislators. So-called single issue groups have been able to create profiles of legislators based on voting records on a cluster of issues and see who is friend or foe.

One example of state-initiated efforts that caught hold is “Right to Try,” a law that allow the terminally ill access to treatments not approved by the FDA. A libertarian think tank Goldwater Institute used Bill Track 50 data to find allies, said Suhaka. The bill first passed in Colorado last year and had been passed in 24 states.

These states laws are meant to speed up existing FDA compassionate use rules, which critics say is a slow, burdensome process for doctors. Medical experts at New York University Langhorne Medical Center warn that compassionate use or right-to-try may introduce unsafe treatments.

For now Right to Try is a state battle because the “Right to Try Act of 2015” has been introduced on Capitol Hill (H.R. 3012) and seems to be halted. According to GovTrack, the bill’s “prognosis” has a 1 percent chance of being enacted.

Civic hackers and ‘hackathons’

Along with existing tools, thousands across the country are trying to make programs for their local communities. Now that government data is more available and better organized, civic hackers are trying to make their own apps. Often, these civic hacking sessions are done at meetup groups or hackathons to grow group spirit and energy for arduous coding tasks.

Code for America explains on its website that it has a “brigade” of roughly 5,000 volunteer programmers in the U.S. working on projects such as letting commuters know if their bus/train will be late and a roster tool for teachers.

Marathon group coding sessions, or hackathons, attract computer programmers and others to build useful applications. This week, coding sessions are scheduled in Kansas City and a hackfest in Philadelphia drawing over 1,000 college students.

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