White House sponsored Hack for Change sounds like a bad joke

first_imgHow do you take a great idea and make sure that it offends as many people as possible? If you’re the White House, you announce a well meaning initiative geared towards reaching out to young programmers using the same language that was used to prosecute their peers and heroes.Following the White House’s Open Data Initiative plans, the US Census Bureau, NASA, and the Department of Labor have all agreed to provide publicly accessible information in a format ready for developers. The (rather hopeful) goal is that developers from all over the US will use their skills and insight to create powerful apps for citizens to use.Essentially, the government has figured out that if the make information available to citizens they can crowdsource ideas on how to better serve that information to the general public. All things considered, it’s a solid idea that will benefit everyone in the end. Developers of every skill level will look good with this kind of work on their resume, and the public could get useful, well designed apps that will likely be available on computers and smartphones alike.Where this plan goes horribly awry is in the marketing. The website that contains all of the information for how you can participate is hackforchange.org. The big slogan behind the initiative is the National Day of Civic Hacking. The imagery associated with the initiative is the iconic WWII era “We Can Do It!” girl (also known as Rosie the Riveter) who was originally created to help increase productivity in overworked laborers after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The idea here is that everyone in the 50 states will get together, roll up their sleeves, and tackle the task set before us, because it’s our civic duty to use our skills for the betterment of our great nation.I can think of a few people in recent history that would take issue with the US Government suddenly looking upon “hacking” as a positive thing that helps our nation. Andrew Auernheimer, a man who is currently awaiting sentencing for releasing information that AT&T left on a public facing webserver, probably isn’t terribly amused by the idea of a National Day of Civic Hacking. Aaron Schwartz, who recently took his own life as a result of the prosecution that followed what many considered to be real civic hacking, would probably not be willing to join in the festivities on June 1-2 at his local hackerspace were he still alive today.The organizing partners for this event, including Code for America and Hacking for Humanity, have opted to turn the concept of hacking into something positive, much to their credit. What is happening as a result is a change in what the public considers “hacking” to be. At one time the word “hacker” was used to spread fear about malicious activities on the internet. That has largely changed today, but it can still cause a sensationalist reaction surrounding anyone who is labeled a hacker. Even if the label is inaccurate, the idea that there are smart people out there who know how to cast dark magic with their fingers as they stroke keys in front of a monitor is about as clear a definition as it gets when asked to describe a hacker. Efforts like Hack For Change can further this stigma by making it sound like programmers are doing something other than building apps with publicly available information that was provided to them on a silver platter.I think there are many people out there who would gladly get behind a day of civic collaboration between government agencies and programmers. In a world where the White House is demonstrating a clear interest in modern technology, I think initiatives like this are important. I do not, however, think it is a good idea to shift the definition of a word like “hacking” in an attempt to reach a young audience and downplay the real problems that are faced when trying to defend hacktivism in the US today.last_img

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