Code Island hacks for the greater good

Plugging In
By PHILIP EIL  |  May 28, 2014

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“Are you at a computer?” John Speck says. “Go to localwiki.net/ri.”

As we speak over the phone, Speck — a blogger, tech consultant, and self-described “civic activist” — proceeds to talk me through the process of creating a “Providence Phoenix” entry on Rhode Island’s new LocalWiki page. I click on the “Search or Create Page” tab. I type in the paper’s name and hit “Create This Page.” I add a quick entry: “The Providence Phoenix is Rhode Island’s largest alt-weekly newspaper.” And, voila, “Providence Phoenix” appears alongside “Brown University,” “Narragansett Bay,” “Pawtucket,” “Providence,” “Seven Stars Bakery,” “Woonsocket,” and a few other entries on the page’s growing list of topics.

The Rhody LocalWiki is a free online resource that Speck has designed to be “a tremendously deep and broad body of knowledge about all aspects of Rhode Island,” he says. Whether it’s a page on General Ambrose Burnside, Del’s Lemonade, Talking Heads’ origins at RISD, the Naval War College, members of the General Assembly, if it’s a subject relevant to the past, present, or future of the Ocean State — and it passes the muster of editors like Speck, who will monitor the site for accuracy and appropriateness — it’s a welcome addition. It’s “a Wikipedia site specifically for Rhode Island,” Speck says.

But the LocalWiki isn’t just a crowdsourcing exercise; it’s also the most visible initiative of Code Island, the recently formed group of which Speck is an active member.

“Code Island”?

Its own Rhody LocalWiki page tells us it is “the Rhode Island Brigade of Code for America,” the San Francisco-based nonprofit that brings techies together to work on civic-minded projects. “In the past, all CfA brigades have focused on a city, like Chicago or San Francisco,” the page continues. “Code Island is the first CfA brigade to work at the state level; we are their test case.”

Further down, the page describes how Code Island has the “support and direct participation of Thom Guertin, RI’s first chief digital officer and leader of the Office of Digital Excellence,” and how, in addition to creating and expanding the wiki, the group is working to increase digital access to RI job training resources, create visualization tools for easy public access to the state budget, crank out a bus-tracking app for RIPTA, and design an app to “help neighbors exchange value-for-value in ways like shoveling snow or fixing a broken fence,” among other projects.

“It’s sort of like the adult, IT version of Scouting,” says David Johnson, a local engineer and IT guru who serves on a volunteer basis as one of Code Island’s co-captains. The term “hacking” often gets a bad name, Johnson says, and Code Island, among its other goals, is “taking it back to mean people who develop, innovators, anybody who, for the most part, takes something and. . . pushes the boundaries of what the limitations of that particular design were supposed to be.”

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