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— Reuters Photo
— Reuters Photo

Civic hacking, a recent but rapidly proliferating concept, seeks to bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs to collaborate and come up with solutions to civic problems faced by citizens and local governments. The aim is to provide innovative solutions to civic problems that use technology and publicly available data.

“In general, private sectors focus on innovation more than the public sectors, but in Pakistan it is more apparent,” says Sheba Najmi, the founder of Code for Pakistan (CFP), a civic innovation enterprise that is contributing to build a non-partisan civic innovation ecosystem to improve the quality of life across Pakistan.

A fellow of Code For America, a program in the US that works to improve relationships between citizens and government and engages citizens to create better services, Najmi wanted to bring the concept to Pakistan on the first day of her fellowship. The program has garnered a lot of interest and produced many successful Government 2.0 projects since its inception in 2009. Perhaps the best way to describe CFA’s work and ideology is actually their headline, ”By the people, for the people.”

Najmi has worked with Yahoo! as one of the lead designers (for Yahoo! Mail) for several years, and aims to create social impact with technology. She took a two-thirds pay cut to work on public service innovation with CFA or the “peace corps for geeks”, as she laughingly puts it.

“The fellowship year was absolutely magical. It was a completely different experience for me; I had never worked with the government or in the civic space. And I learnt a lot,” says Najmi. 26 fellows with different backgrounds: developers, designers, urban planners, GIS experts, data scientists, came together to innovate in civic services, “collaborating in a very mission minded way.”

The CFA experience gave Najmi an opportunity to learn about the sorts of innovation happening in the civic ecosystem around the world. “This had become my area of expertise and I can see it is needed in Pakistan,” she says. Collaborating with PeaceNiche, Pakistan Software Houses Association (PASHA) and Pring, Sheba Najmi organised her first event, the Karachi Civic Hackathon, in April 2013. The response was very encouraging.

“We wanted to test if Pakistani developers, designers, community organisers are interested in using their skills for community betterment. We weren’t offering any prizes, just wanted to see how much interest there was and what kinds of things people wanted to do, and I was blown away by the response,” she says.

The Civic Hackathon was held over a weekend at T2F, with around 40 participants from a diverse background of programming, design professionals and students. “People did not know each other, but they collaborated. We brainstormed problems collectively, then they formed teams and came up with solutions. They helped other teams in the true spirit of collaboration, prototyped their solutions and open sourced them all in one weekend with just six hours of actual development time,” says Najmi, organiser of the event.

Ten ideas came out of the event, most of them SMS-based apps, covering a range of issues; crowd sourcing crime reporting (citizens report a robbery or mugging and an SMS alert is sent out to those in the vicinity), an application that details the processes for NIC registration, renewing driver’s license or reporting an FIR in English, Urdu or Pashto, and Jugnoo, a platform that has come up with a way to engage the local community in checking up on government school performance and analysing and visualising the data in a useful way. Jugnoo developed out of the prototype phase after the Hackathon, and is now working in collaboration with the Sindh Education Reform Program.

The Hackathon, where professionals belonging to different fields built open source solutions also had a teaching component. Participants attended workshops on GitHub and how to open source their code and applications, on user experience, brainstorming, data analysis and on Pring’s SMS API.

Encouraged by the success of the first civic hackathon, Code for Pakistan, operating under the Lean Start up methodology (in which hypotheses are tested in small chunks on real users and adapted according to feedback), is now expanding to Lahore and Peshawar with two separate programs.

“The next step is not just two other cities, but bringing the governments along. This time both the civic hackathons are in partnership with the provincial governments, the goal is to show governments what’s possible when you reach out to citizens,” says Najmi. CFP will be eliciting problem statements from the government beforehand and government officers will be mentors at the events as well.

The goal for the Lahore Civic Hackathon is to set up the CFP Brigade, where citizens meet on a regular basis, discuss civic problems and continue developing applications they created beyond the hackathon. In Peshawar, CFP will pilot a Fellowship Program where fellows will be embedded in the government for six months for scaling and developing civic apps, along with mentors from the government as well as technical mentors.

Speaking positively about the feedback from the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, Sheba Najmi says she was impressed with the “forward thinking Government 2.0 initiatives” of the Punjab IT Board and in KPK, she found a lot of “goodwill and the desire to engage with citizens”.

The prevalent view in the civic innovation and open source community is that technology offers the space to collaborate, where people with different technical skills can come together without traditional ‘real world’ barriers and innovate or hack together, creating solutions for ‘offline’ problems. Bringing this attitude of collaboration and the open source technology to citizens, the government can offer truly democratic and exciting possibilities for change.