Campus gears up for 'civic hacking'

The term "hacking" often carries negative connotations and conjures images of a nefarious computer whiz gaining access to sensitive information, but a trio of SF State faculty and staff members is hoping to instead use the process for good.

A photo of Web Specialist Julio Feliciano working at a computer.

Web Specialist Julio Feliciano is one of three SF State faculty ands staff members organizing a day of "civic hacking."

Professor of Information Systems Sameer Verma, Web Specialist Julio Feliciano and Associate Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Phoebe Kwan are tapping into a movement known as "civic hacking," which involves the use of publicly available data to develop software aimed at solving specific social problems. The three are organizing a "Hackathon @ SF State" next month in conjunction with a nationwide civic hacking effort.

Hacking simply means doing big things with limited resources, for good or for bad, Feliciano said. The term originated during World War II, when technicians would hack into old, unusable planes and use their parts to assemble new planes.

Civic hacking "democratizes" data from government agencies and other sources by making it accessible to and usable by the public, he added. Examples of civic hacking projects include a mobile app that allows residents to report potholes or a website where constituents can see how their local elected officials have voted on specific legislation.

"It really is about using limited resources with a big payout that can benefit a lot of people," Feliciano said.

Software that results from civic hacking is typically released as open-source, meaning its source code is freely available for other programmers to improve or adapt. In addition to the societal benefit, students who participate in civic hacking end up with a publicly available work product they can show off to potential employers.

"An existing product is better than any resume because then you can send someone a link and say, 'I helped build this app' or 'I helped build these features,'" Verma said. "That does more to help a student land a job than just putting it on their resume."

As a public university with social justice and civic engagement at the heart of its mission, SF State has a role to play in using open data to allow more people to take part in the democratic process, Verma added.

"As our world has become more and more digital, we want it to be easier for people to participate. That's where technology comes in," Verma said. "There are issues of social justice and equity that can be solved by using technology to access open data."

The Hackathon @ SF State will take place on campus June 1 and 2. For more information, visit

-- Jonathan Morales