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Civic Media Project

Eric Gordon, Author

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Hackathons as a Site for Civic IOT: Initial Insights

Carl DiSalvo and Ken Anderson

Over the past several years we have taken a research-through-design approach to civic hackathons, engaging them as organizers, hosts, and participants. Of late, we have become interested in using civic hackathons to explore the civic potentials of the Internet of Things (IoT). With its focus on IoT, the 2014 National Day of Civic Hacking provided an opportunity to do just this. We approached this hackathon as a design experiment. We were curious to see how we might use the hackathon as an opportunity to prototype services in support of an in-progress civic IoT system. Such a product-service approach (Morelli 2002), we believed, might fit well with the practices of hackathons.  Through this design experiment we were able to glean insights into tactics for mediating the design process for IoT in hackathons and reflect on the character of participation in civic hackathons. 

Our in-progress civic IoT system was being developed to support foraging.  Foraging is the practice of collecting fruits and vegetables from sites other than farms or orchards, such as from trees or plants in public parks, private yards, or abandoned lots.  Sometimes the foraged food is for personal consumption, other times it is sold at markets, and still other times it is donated to food shelters. Foraging is an interesting civic practice because it can serve a common good, but operates orthogonal to standard structures for governance and the care of citizens.  The fruits and vegetables collected through foraging augment the food resources available to those in need, and contribute to the resilience of a local food system.  As foraging is a volunteer endeavor, the timing and organization of activities is essential to manage involvement.   One of the challenges is knowing when fruit is ripe, so that picks can be organized to collect the fruit. At the suggestion of a local foraging group, we decided to explore the use of sensing mechanisms to alert foragers that a given apple tree might be ready for picking. The idea was relatively simple: as apples become ripe they gain weight and the tree limb bends. If we could detect a change in the bend of the limb, we could surmise that a tree might be ready for picking and notify the foragers. 

For the 2014 National Day of Civic Hacking, our goal was not to have attendees contribute to the sensing mechanism itself, but to contribute to the product-service system through the development of software.  In part this is because the sensing mechanism did not require extensive engineering. In part this is because the sensing mechanism did not require extensive engineering.  But moreover, this was because we wanted to explore civic IoT as a problem of product-service integration: to focus on the ecology of components that comprise an IoT system and how they work together. So, we took the hardware as a given and sought to explore how services might make that hardware more useful to practice. 

On the first evening of the event we presented the challenge and a small group gathered together to work on the project. While one of us worked on tweaking the bend-branch sensor (for demo purposes and to establish a material connection between the hardware and the software, to make present the components of the product-service system) the rest of the team began brainstorming software applications and features in support of the sensors capabilities and the practices of the foragers. The brainstorming process was lead by a team member with expertise in User Experience. He asked questions of us (the researchers representing the foragers) to better understand foraging and began to gather requirements. He also served as the project director for the rest of the team, who had technical backgrounds, ranging from machine learning to web development. 

Over the course of the 24-hour hackathon the team prototyped a mapping service to document and monitor a distribution of sensors across the city. The prototype displayed mock-sensor data at actual locations of apple tress, basic digital cartography features, such as visual clustering associated with levels of zoom, and basic data management and interactivity, such as the ability to sort by fields. The data structures and framework were designed so future versions could support tracking alerts, sensor calibration at site, and comparative tracking of trees over time.

The 2014 National Day of Civic Hacking thus served as a worthwhile site to prototype services in support of an in-progress civic IoT system. Taking the hardware as a given allowed the team to focus on software capabilities that would bolster the usefulness of the product-service system overall. One insight drawn from the event was the value of UX in mediating between software and hardware prototyping of IoT. Though perhaps obvious in retrospect—as UX is a generalist design concerned with integration—the UX expert was able to convert an understanding of the practices of foraging into desirable system features, and then manage the prototyping process. 

Beyond being a site for ad-hoc design, what insights can be gleaned from this case study to reflect on the character of participation in civic hackathons? 

To begin with, in addition to UX as project management, we might acknowledge the role of UX in organizing a coalition of effort at the hackathon. In effect, the UX role made the practice technically tractable. One might argue this has an effect of stripping a civic practice into a mere set of design requirements. To an extent that is true. There was only minor engagement with foraging as a practice, or local food systems as an issue. But this minor engagement is not entirely problematic when it occurs in participation with a network of comment—a collective. In civic contexts we might want to realize a kind of collective engagement that includes but is not limited to individuals. The individual participates in the collective. The collective participates in the issue. This is not to suggest to that there is no individual responsibility. Nor is it an embrace of solutionism (Morozov 2013). Rather, it is recognition that the kinds of ad-hoc design practices that comprise civic hackathons require new appreciations for what constitutes civic engagement. 


Civic hackathons provide a site and practice of ad-hoc design with the potential to contribute to new forms and modes of civics. How do we discover these forms? How do we appreciate these potentials without being seduced? 



References


Morelli, Nicola. 2002. “Designing Product/Service Systems: A Methodological Exploration.” Design Issues 18 (3): 3-17. 

Morozov, E. 2013. To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. PublicAffairs. 


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