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 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
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— will.i.am
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
Melissa Gregg is Principal Engineer in
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.