Civic News
Hackathons / Municipal government

Philly’s civic hackers should work on national projects: Tom Steinberg, MySociety founder

Philly's civic hackers can't save the city single-handedly. They should "share the burden" with hackers outside the city, said Tom Steinberg, founder of the U.K.-based civic app organization MySociety.

Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety, visited Philly during Philly Tech Week. Photo from The Guardian.

Philly’s civic hackers can’t save the city single-handedly. They should “share the burden” with hackers outside the city, said Tom Steinberg, founder of the U.K.-based civic app organization MySociety. But that’s just about the only weakness he noticed in Philly’s civic hacking scene when he visited during Philly Tech Week.

Check out his takeaways below, originally sent in an email to the city’s Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and Civic Technology Director Tim Wisniewski.

Steinberg writes:

  • It is striking to see how much goodwill exists in Philadelphia to the very notion of using technologies for improved civic life. That goodwill is priceless and I expect doesn’t exist in a lot of other places in the U.S.
  • It seems that you’ve got transport absolutely licked as a sector. But what’s the next big opportunity? That’s still not clear. A shared notion that ‘X is the next hot field for civic tech’ would probably be a useful thing.
  • The very fact that hackers and public servants go for informal lunches to talk about what is possible is incredibly healthy and to be celebrated. Don’t stop, even when parts of the city (inevitably) do stupid or callous things that make it feel like the two sides aren’t aligned. Government has many heads – keep friendly with the nice ones.
  • If I perceived any weaknesses it is that I didn’t see a lot of people saying ‘Oh, I’m a hacker on part of a civic tech project that is bigger than Philadelphia.’ I really doubt any one city can afford to have a scene that will solve all its tech problems alone, I think that sharing the burden with jointly-developed tools like and has to be part of the future, whoever starts them.

Looking bigger is no doubt a must for the growth of a social enterprise scene that would need both its civic technologists and broader issue-based experts to look to solve local problems with ideas than can have impact elsewhere too.

The balance is a challenging one — NASA staff at one of the first Random Hacks of Kindness events here lauded the local passion. Make a global impact but stay close to what is distinct about Philadelphia: that’s the trick.

Companies: City of Philadelphia

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