XXI.4 July + August 2014
Page: 58
Digital Citation

Building belonging

Carl DiSalvo, Melissa Gregg, Thomas Lodato

Over the past two years we have been conducting research into issue-oriented hackathons—events that draw together activists, citizens, entrepreneurs, and coders to address social conditions and their consequences. This research connects to broader trends in the fields of HCI and CSCW of examining informal design and development environments and practices [1,2,3]. Our particular focus is on hackathons as events, and how these events are formed by and at the same time give form to the issues they purport to engage and address. Unlike corporate hackathons, which favor the production of technical solutions for business opportunity, issue-oriented events put social questions at the center. Examples of such issue-oriented hackathons include those organized around environmental conditions, such as Eco-Hack (, or food systems, such as Hack//Meat ( Civic hackathons are one subset of issue-oriented hackathons that focus on governance and public life.

The most prominent civic hackathon to date is the National Day of Civic Hacking, which took place in more than 70 U.S. cities in June 2013. This coordinated series of events, organized and sponsored by a spate of governmental and corporate organizations, was an opportunity to “bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs across the nation to collaboratively create, build, and invent, using publicly released data, code, and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, and our country” ( The National Day of Civic Hacking took the increasingly familiar format of the hackathon to a national scale. Over the course of 48 hours, hundreds of ideas were generated along with thousands of lines of code. A handful of winners were selected by judges at each site to showcase civic hacking’s potential as a way of fostering new forms of civic engagement. Of these successful teams, a lucky few were honored at a White House reception.



In our observation of hackathons—as designers, coders, hosts, and citizens—it is clear that the language shared by their corporate and civic manifestations is one of problem solving through technical innovation. New products and services for assembling, analyzing, and accessing data can be tested and implemented by hackers, and in turn, startups seeking exposure for their products can gain free publicity when their services are used for this purpose. One of the most common features of hackathons is crowdsourced labor and the public relations opportunity this presents to new businesses and their potential employees. What actually gets made in the way of apps or interfaces or visualizations is rarely innovative, however. The rough-hewn nature of the products keeps them from deployment or even rudimentary evaluation. This is not to say that hackathons are useless, but rather that the technical production is secondary to other outcomes. The less explicit but far more interesting products of civic hackathons are so many versions of civic imaginary. Their function is to provide ad hoc experiments in new constitutions of citizenship.

Civic hackathons produce new imaginaries of place, belonging, and hope in the performance of citizenship. These imaginaries provide crucial affective mechanisms for mobilizing energy and ultimately resources to secure political outcomes in local communities. While the technical dimensions of hackathons typically define their appeal, we suggest these features are important only to the extent that they materialize and enact desires and beliefs about what public life is and might become. These social desires and expectations (and the imbrication of technology with those desires) constitute a new platform for citizenship, setting trajectories for future work in their assembly. As we will see, these civic imaginaries are situated—they are defined by and reflective of the histories and practices of those that host them. The implication of this for design researchers is that civic hackathons allow us to explore how multiple notions of civics are being constructed and enacted, and therefore how they might be constructed and enacted differently.

Making the Civic Imaginary

In Atlanta, the National Day of Civic Hacking took place in an office building along one edge of the Georgia Institute of Technology. At the cusp of the university campus and the midtown neighborhood, the Centergy Building embodies a desired porousness between the university, industry, and the city: Local startups and university spinouts operate alongside business advocacy groups, steps away from the renowned Georgia Tech GVU research center and the Institute for People and Technology. The primary organizers of the Atlanta National Day of Civic Hacking were the Technology Association of Georgia and Random Hacks of Kindness, a national organization that hosts hackathons on a regular basis. These organizations and their efforts were supported by a range of corporations, including Intel, Socrata, and SecondMuse, each with different commitments across the nexus of civic and data economies.


Challenges are often the internal organizing structure of hackathons, which was certainly the case at the Atlanta National Day of Civic Hacking. The challenges included the use of Census Bureau data and APIs to create apps of use to local businesses, the development of an aggregate interactive map of the local food system, the design of the information architecture for a website proposed to catalog future civic media projects and initiatives in Atlanta, as well as a series of challenges proposed by the Peace Corps to support field workers in their international work. The challenges thus connected the desire to showcase local capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship with the desire to contribute national, if not global, endeavors “for the good.” Some participants lived only a mile away, while others drove for two hours to get there, reflecting the status of Atlanta as a region as well as the draw of the event. Teams quickly formed around the challenges and began working. In the first few hours, sticky notes appeared on walls, and boxes and arrows were drawn on whiteboards. By the afternoon of the first day, many were staring intently into laptop screens, typing, and conferring with those around them. We and other participants took part in the rituals of hackathons: Together we ate pizza in the evening, and the following morning we ate bagels as the work continued. The afternoon of the second day brought the presentations—prototypes in various stages of completion, most working to some extent, but all far from being functionally implemented.

On the same day in Los Angeles, greeted by egg muffins and coffee, hundreds of people converged on the Boyle Heights Youth Technology Center to take part in Hack for L.A., which was one of the Los Angeles–based National Day of Civic Hacking events. Palm trees and sunshine framed the site, nestled in an otherwise gritty urban neighborhood just off the 101 freeway. Organizers began the hackathon with a prerecorded YouTube welcome from event sponsor and patron, best known as a singer from the Black Eyed Peas. Young staff from his foundation provided the logistical labor to put together the event and the PR nous to bring enough celebrity buzz to attract local media. The challenge phase moved deftly from enthusiastic encouragement (“You guys are AWESOME for giving up your weekend!”) to blatant pragmatism (“We’re hiring”) from the tech-company reps dominating the sponsorship register. Meanwhile, the political interests at play were obvious when, prior to the commencement of coding, the city’s mayor-elect, Eric Garcetti, arrived to formally open the proceedings.

Civic hackathons allow us to explore how multiple notions of civics are being constructed and enacted.

Garcetti used his speech to set an agenda for office: coding classes in local high schools and a CTO for L.A. in his first term. The speech was high on rhetoric, part of the broader frenzy intended to mobilize the volunteer labor. His comments revealed some fascinating assumptions about government: It’s broken. It cannot fix the most basic things for its citizens. Lauding the hackers, he acknowledged that anything they did that day would matter, would be better than what was in place now. “You don’t accept the world as it is,” he said, riffing off the youthful vibe. The bottom line for government and civic participation was captured by the logic “You didn’t make it worse.” This was Garcetti’s idea of a joke, but it was pivotal. It was a genuflection to the challenges facing L.A. as a city. “We still need to pave that pothole with asphalt,” he said, “but knowing the pothole is there,” is something open data can fix.


Some of the apps developed shared the priorities of the Atlanta hack, for instance, the focus on urban food supply. This in itself is a useful indicator of the priorities currently poorly addressed in large and dispersed U.S. cities. In Boyle Heights, there was also a strong indication of the digital divide within the host community, and successful apps publicized access to education programs, job-matching services, and various government agencies and services. In each case, then, the “matters of concern” highlighted in the hackathon expressed the location of the event. In L.A., a highly diverse ethnic population of second- and third-generation migrants raised a particular set of issues around connectivity (of course, the prospect of digital literacy—and code literacy—is itself a major issue when English is a second language). By contrast, in Atlanta, citizenship was not an object of contestation, and a notion of a digital civics seemed taken for granted.

Experiments in Citizenship

When we use the term civic imaginary to capture these processes, we refer to the qualities and practices that are seen as legitimate contributions of people to and within a particular governmental system. That is to say, civic imaginaries are the ways in which one transforms from a person or resident into a citizen. As such, civic imaginaries are not static, but rather constantly situated, mediated, and performed as governmental institutions and people (are seen to) relate through local, cultural, and historical conditions. As events, civic hackathons provide both a site and a means for real-time experimentation with and performance of such relations: More than any system or service, what gets made are audiences and applications that envision citizenship as situated, participatory, and often technologically mediated. When the Census Bureau develops a series of APIs for its data, brings these APIs to a National Day of Civic Hacking event, and enrolls volunteers in the project of developing demos, a set of relations is produced between governmental organizations and people. Participants come to recognize themselves as data—subjects of measurement and record by and for governmental purposes. As a result, participants also come to terms with their identity as citizens through their contribution to a dataset. Furthermore, the Census API provides a site in which application development and interaction design are recast as civic practices. The hackathon allows for an exploration of roles and responsibilities—it raises questions of rights and entitlements for populations. The systems and services prototyped serve as markers of what is needed to fulfill the expectations of these practices of governance and models of citizenship.

Civic imaginaries are the ways in which one transforms from a person or resident into a citizen.

Civic hackathons thus provide participants with enhanced visibility of their own location in state-based systems of measure. This exposure intensifies and personalizes the idea of citizenship in a unique way. Involvement in a civic hackathon provides a certain kind of pleasure in this personalization, and a means of rehearsing possible futures of governance and public life. Participating in the construction of this civic imaginary reinforces the character of the civic being imagined. What precisely, though, are the qualities of this civic imaginary being constructed? To be sure, it includes a notion of technological citizenship. Those with specific skills and literacy are better placed to contribute to the public-facing tools being developed. Likewise, those with access to digital devices and services are granted a greater role as citizens. While many at civic hackathons encourage such a civic imaginary in the name of empowerment and inclusion, technological citizenship is itself a matter of concern—an issue that requires attending to.

At the Atlanta National Day of Civic Hacking, there was no discussion of who was absent, of who was not participating or not able to participate, of who was not represented. The majority of those who attended were already attuned to a technological citizenship. Participants arrived equipped not just with laptops and smartphones, but also with technical skills ready to be applied. Perhaps it is not surprising then that there was no questioning of the constitution of the civic, of the operation of the government as status quo, with its procedures merely accelerated and amplified through technological means.

This consensus at a given site, however, should not be taken as characteristic of the event as a whole. Across different locales, histories, ideologies, and desires shift. In L.A., the social mobility enjoyed by two key players in the hackathon— and Mayor Garcetti, both sons of Boyle Heights—may not map easily onto the experiences of Latino and Asian American youth concentrated in the same urban neighborhood today. Their poor prospects for secure and digitally literate employment are unlikely to be met by the solutions produced through the hackathon. In L.A., the civic imaginary illustrated in the app prototypes placed repeated emphasis on the matter of “engagement”—a neat catch-all for qualities of belonging to place that successful hackathons enact, if momentarily, in practice.

One perspective on civic hackathons would herald greater involvement from a more diverse array of citizens. Another perspective would be to see civic hackathons as a continuation of a pattern of outsourcing of government capacities and responsibilities. The civic hacker takes on the role of service provider both to citizens and the government itself. Our analysis makes us think differently. By praising the civic hacker, the events empower as much as disempower, and take a particular political stance. Civic hackathons by their very nature call into question citizenship as it stands, and as such enact technological citizenship through their very existence. If these events explore the conditions of being a citizen, then we cannot ignore how civic hackathons produce such visions too. Technological citizenship, like all citizenship, is heterogeneous, as it is subject to local resources, human or otherwise.

What, then, are we to make of these civic hackathons, in the broader context of issue-oriented hacking? At the very least, their production of a civic imaginary offers a situated sense of agency and a propelling kind of subjective work. Civic hackathons allow for a temporary, intense, and event-based belonging. They turn location and the experience of place into a discrete set of actionable demands, many of which prove to be both more mundane and realistic notions of citizenship than we usually see displayed in public. Civic hackathons generate design artifacts that archive and act as prompts for action to bring about a better relationship to place. If their reliance on speculative labor shows evidence of opportunism, the rhetorical force that civic imaginaries command helps us understand why people are prepared to give up their work and their weekends. Hackathons’ powerful demonstration of place and citizenship lets individuals feel part of something bigger than themselves and their screens: to imagine what it would be like to be recognized as part of a place that could still turn out to be home.


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Carl DiSalvo is an associate professor in the Digital Media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he studies the social and political qualities of design and computing. With Melissa Gregg, he is co-director of the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing.

Melissa Gregg is Principal Engineer in User Experience Research within Intel Labs, where she studies new theories of work and management both within and beyond the traditional enterprise. With Carl DiSalvo, she is co-director of the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing.

Thomas Lodato is a Ph.D. candidate in the Digital Media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is interested in how design activities occurs outside of traditional studio environments, and how, in these environments, the practice of design changes. His doctoral research examines the practice of user experience in a large technology company.

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