Have you been to a hackathon? If you’re not a programmer, the answer is probably no. Hackathons are intensive sessions where programmers work collaboaratively on a specific programming task. In the past few years, “hacker” culture has shifted towards solving urban problems. City “hackathons” have popped up all over the world. Here are just a few examples: Tampa, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

These events fall under the broader umbrella of “civic hacking.” What is “civic hacking”? The prefix “civic” denotes an attempt at governance rather than simply engaging in disruptive citizen protest. While “hacking” as a practice can have nefarious connotations, civic hacking is the application of “hacking” tools towards more effective governance. One example is the Open Government Partnership — An intiative launced in 2011 designed to produce “more transparent, effective and accountable governments — with institutions that empower citizens and are responsive to their aspirations…” Forty-seven nations, including the United States, have become signatories to the pledge.

In practical terms, apps like Seeclickfix put into practice the aim of more accountable and responsive government by allow citizens to file non-emergency “online public reports” in their cities through on-line desktop and mobile apps. City governments can add them as widgets to their mobile desktops. The public report is then sent to a list of public officials and bloggers in the community who have the capacity to act on them….. Seeclickflix charges muunicipal governments between $1200 and $20000 a year to manage their “311” services.

The proliferation of apps like seeclickfix and the ethos it supports bring up interesting questions. Does civic hacking elevate localism at the expense of the national? If government responiveness is largely a question of information asymmetry, then the ability of users to convey concerns with little to no transaction costs would appear to bode well for citizen perceptions of local government. However, as you aggregate up the ability to meet the demands of a large diverse polis becomes more than a question of service delivery. A quick look at the whitehouse.gov online petition page confirms this. What are the implications of this, if true? Don’t know yet.