Media @ McGill

“Open Data City: The Politics of Civic Hacking in Toronto”

Submitted by Media@McGill on


Alex Mochnacki, Department of Sociology

My research examines the characteristics, the potentials, and the limitations of current civic engagements around open government data in Canadian municipalities. Open government data (OGD) refers to government-produced facts and information that can be freely accessed, used, transformed and redistributed by non-government actors through open digital infrastructures. Over the past five years, OGD has moved from an uncommon experiment in government transparency to an increasingly popular policy program in municipalities across Canada. Advocates believe that releasing accessible government data, free of technical, legal, and economic barriers of use will promote more accountability in government while stimulating local knowledge economies that generate market and social innovation. A key claim made is that widespread use of government data will lead to new forms of collaborative governance between municipal public service and outside publics. My study focuses on one such form of collective governance emerging through OGD, called by some ‘civic hacking’.

Civic hacking, defined briefly, is the social practice of using open data to produce software applications to address civic problems. The core problem in my work is to understand how civic hacking, as a form of expertise and political action built out of using open government data, is mobilized and acquires legitimacy within a municipal community. To do this I look at the relations between organized knowledge infrastructures, technical expertise, and civic literacies within civic hacking publics. I focus particularly on two sets of interactions embedded in the process of civic hacking: first, the interactions between programmer and non-programmer citizens who deliberate, investigate, and devise open data solutions; second, the interactions between civic hacking publics and government officials who negotiate (and sometimes contest) the release and proper function for open government data.

My investigative methodology is qualitative and ethnographic, employing semistructured interviews, participant observation, and media content analysis. Please note that, as the accompanying  dissertation proposal suggests, my original case study was to be the city of Hamilton, Ontario. After beginning my fieldwork in January 2014, I have since switched my focus to the city of Toronto, after finding a much larger civic hacking population to draw on and study. Outside of this change, the research is identical to the proposal. By March 2014, I have conducted five interviews out of an end goal of forty and have participated in and participated in four open data hacks. My fieldwork and data analysis portion of my dissertation will be completed by late fall 2014. My prospective submission date for the written component of my dissertation is May 2015.

Researching open government data and civic hacking culminates my extensive engagement as a graduate student with issues concerning the politics of intellectual property, digital media, and social movements. My overall plan of study is directed towards understanding how new knowledge-driven and media-based mobilizations challenge and transform standard understandings of how collective actors enable social change through political means. Exemplary of this focus is my article on the role of experts and digital media in Canadian copyright politics, “Experts as Superheros, Comic Books as Intervention and Boundary Making In Canadian Copyright Policy”, recently published in the journal Communication, Culture & Critique, which derived out of an earlier paper written for Professor Becky Lentz’s media course on policy and discourse analysis. I sincerely thank the fellowship committee for taking the time to review my application.