Tulsa man quips “Civic Hackers Invade White House”

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoman Scott Phillips was honored at the White House this morning (Tuesday, July 23) as a “Champion of Change” for his work on “open government and civic hacking.”

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Phillips described the National Day of Civic Hacking, held June 1, “to showcase and support the growing Civic Hacking Movement.” He sketched the work of “Code for Tulsa,” which he described as “a local brigade of Code for America.” 

As for the White House event, before it unfolded Phillips said he had a humorous vision of headlines reading, “Civic Hackers Invade White House.”

There it is again. What is civic hacking?

A friendly digital wonk told CapitolBeatOK, “I think it’s a bunch of coders and web developers who come together to build website for non-profits in a defined time frame, like a weekend.” So, it’s doing something worthwhile for worthy causes, super-fast? “That’s my understanding.”

In Phillips’ vision, the idea of “civic hacking” is actually rather traditional, with a meaning much older than the negative one from the early information age. And, its first broad application might have been in one of the collaborative processes that emerged among Oklahomans after this spring’s devastating tornadoes.

Phillips hearkened back to World War II, when military aircraft repair workers “would take 9 or 10 banged up planes and cannibalize in order to make one good working plane, and put one plane back together.”

As he explained, “We are using non-official or non-traditional means to affect change. Getting a project to the point where people can see and understand it” on a digital device.” He said, “This project is one of the last impactful things that can be truly non-partisan.”

Phillips said the Code for Tulsa group consists of “Civic-minded software developers building software and mobile apps to help people and help Tulsa.” The nationwide group was created to “provide codes and do data work for organizing civic involvement.”

June 1 activities included a “hack-a-thon” to coordinate online support for relief efforts in included a “hack-a-thon” to coordinate online support for relief efforts in aftermath of the destructive spring tornadoes in Oklahoma. Phillips spoke to CapitolBeatOK Monday evening, a few hours after the White House’s announcement of his “champion” designation.

Phillips described his “hacking” work in an email to CapitolBeatOK: “In the wake of the disaster, we struggled with an appropriate response and even considered cancelling” the June 1 event. He continued, “Our concern turned to opportunity when Open FEMA contacted us and offered their resources. We realized we could build something at our hack-a-thon that could help in future disasters. With this project we could honor those impacted by the tragedy and turn our sorrow into action.”

As a result, “We worked with Open FEMA, the Oklahoma All Hazard Incident Management Team, and Oklahoma Task Force 1 – our state run Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Task Force, to develop a basic design spec that came together the morning of our hack-a-thon. Both the Oklahoma Incident Management Team and Oklahoma Task Force 1 had just returned from their deployment to Moore, so they brought incredible real world perspective.”

Then, Phillips and his allies networked with a group that had worked on the response to Hurricane Sandy in New York: “As soon as we saw the incredible overlap in our visions both teams decided to collaborate.”

He said the end result is that search and rescue teams will be able “to deploy faster, and search more efficiently saving precious time and potentially even lives.”

Phillips deflected credit for the foregoing in his interview with CapitolBeatOK, saying he is a “figure-head for a process that is being honored.”

In a press release sent to CapitolBeatOK, the White House saidconcerning Phillips and other honorees, “The Champions … have made a tremendous positive impact by building high-tech tools to help health workers and disaster-response crews better serve communities; piloting innovative programs to involve traditionally disengaged communities in local governance; using new technologies to enhance government transparency and collaboration; and more.”

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.