A group of faculty members came together and brainstormed what students might want, and they decided on high-speed Wi-Fi. After all, every student has a device that needs to get plugged in to the network. They decided instant, faster gratification would make them happy.

They rallied some students into a room in the College of Business. They found that what the students actually wanted was a microwave.

This is a hack, as Sameer Verma calls it.

“Civic hacking uses limited resources with the biggest bang,” said Julio Feliciano, a lead member on the hack-a-thon team and an information technology consultant for SF State.

Somewhere at the intersection of problem solving, design, science, entrepreneurship, coding and user experience is civic hacking. It’s a collaborative effort with the end result of solving social problems and empowering communities.

It is more than getting your city to put a stop sign in, it’s getting your city to engage with you when you need a stop sign. [is this a quote?]

Verma, an information systems professor at SF State, is a member of SF State’s civic hack-a-thon team. The theme for this year’s on-campus hack-a-thon is education and medical technology.

“Everyone has an idea of how they want their government to run or like to see run,” Feliciano said.

You are a number. In the Bay Area, data is king and you are probably not an outlier. Verma and Feliciano believe that datasets, the ones your tax dollars pay for, should be free and open. They believe we should “use the data as a proxy on civic behavior.” In other words, our city government knows a lot about us, we should know what they know.

Data can be harnessed by hackers to create more efficient systems.

“Civic hack-a-thons and open data frees technology from the select few,” Feliciano said. “Specifically civic hack-a-thons bring together all citizens to solve an issue, problem or concern within their community.”

In Oakland, civic hackers used data to create Oakland Answers. The website is a simple resolution to the city’s existing site that, like most municipal websites, is a bureaucratic labyrinth.

There are four buttons on the landing page that guides users to things like getting permits, or paying parking tickets. A makeover the city embraced.

“It is making government speak your language,” Feliciano said. It isn’t about dumbing down civic engagement, it’s about taking away all the legalize and jumbled jargon.

Feliciano is hoping to make data from SF State open from which the public can make mobile apps and products — the University’s way of paying it forward.

“We’re going to release it publicly and say ‘what can you do with it?’” Feliciano said.

Feliciano volunteers at Code for San Francisco, a group sponsored by Code for America that meets weekly to brainstorm ways to crack open local government and make it look pretty. He has worked on political campaigns and continues to discuss opening up SF State with the chief technology officer on campus, Phoebe Kwan.

“Hacking, of course, in our world is a bad thing,” Kwan said. “We in IT often have to be careful about people out there with hacking.”

Kwan works in the division of information technology that oversees major systems for the campus, including student records, grades, email, and calendar. So, it is natural that when Feliciano and Verma pitched the idea of a hack-a-thon on the San Francisco campus, she said no at first.

“We have people outside our university who try to get resources we have. Being in a university we have people who like to download things they shouldn’t,” Kwan said.

Hackers like to use the University not because of the well of sensitive, personal information — and there is plenty of that — but because the campus has such a large pipeline into the Internet.

“Since information security is under our guise, we have to make sure that our resources are perfected in a way that the hackers can’t get in,” Kwan said.

During the hack-a-thon, there will be securities in place that ensure students’ sensitive information will not be accessed. “The world of computing has this flavor of instant gratification,” Verma said. “You create something, hit a button and it happens.”

Space is limited for the hack-a-thon. You can register at: hackathon.sfsu.edu.

 See the full collection on Medium at: https://medium.com/a-byte-of-the-valley

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Natalie Yemenidjian

Natalie Yemenidjian