Civic Hacking With WordPress

A few days ago, I wrote about a civic hacking meetup which is happening in Appleton i the near future.

Because the goal of civic hacking is to build better communities and better civic tools, people who become civic hackers may be more citizen activists than ninja coders. While WordPresssome civic hackers can build websites with raw HTML and CSS or with a stack of computer languages and services, other civic hackers may want to limit their website building to an easy-to-learn-yet-powerful tech tool like WordPress (WP).

Most people, from middle school students who grew up with technology to retired people who aren’t afraid to use computers, can learn how to build a basic website with WP in just a couple hours, either on their own or with a little guidance. But, in addition to the basic website capabilities of WP, it also has so many advanced features, themes, plugins and possible customizations that it also powers websites of large businesses such as Mercedes-Benz and The Walt Disney Company.

Read on to learn more about civic hacking uses of WP…

WP: Part of the Civic Hacker Toolset

sccIn the post, “Tech Tools For Civic Hacking,” I mentioned the Smart Chicago Collaborative (SCC), a group that does civic hacking and describes themselves as “a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology.” In their post, “Tech Tools for Civic Organizations,” SCC says this about digital tools for civic hackers and for civic organizations:

“One of the problems that we sometimes encounter [when helping civic organizations] in the technology space is that we say things like, “Oh, just use this piece of software that I assume you know about.” It’s the digital equivalent of watching a home improvement show and they get out a circular saw. The show says, “Oh, just make a few cuts here.” The problem is that it assume the viewer even has a circular saw – and the clamps, goggles, saw horses, the working space, and the know how to actually use the expensive piece of hardware that can seriously hurt you if you don’t use it correctly…

The good news is that there are a number of tools that are easy to use and won’t break the bank. We tend to favor lightweight tools because they’re 1) easy to use 2) not expensive and 3) we can use them in solutions that are repeatable…”

WordPress is one of the digital tools SCC uses and recommends, describing it this way:

“…WordPress is the backbone of our digital communication strategy. It’s what runs not only our website, but the website of many other organizations as well.

WordPress is easy to set up and with a few additional changes you can have the site point to your own domain name. There’s two options to do this. The first is that you can use wordpress.org to set up a custom install on your server. However, we recommend just using WordPress.com (which does all the setup on the their side.) Initially, you’ll have a website.wordpress.com site. You can then pay to upgrade to have the blog point to your own homepage site once you buy a domain name…”

Use WP To Build Websites For Civic Hacker Groups

code for tulsa

Code for Tulsa, a Code for America civic hacker brigade

As pointed out above by the SSC, WP is used by some civic hackers to build their group’s website, including SCC’s own site. Another example is the website of the Code for America brigade in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Because most programmers in a civic hacking group are more interested in scraping data, building databases, writing apps and doing other code-intensive work than they are in building and maintaining the group’s website, it often makes sense to have a non-coder work on the website. Free tools like WordPress.com make it easy for non-coders to set up a website and add content to it. A WP veteran might get involved with the site sometimes just to tweak the design or add a certain functionality they want, but otherwise the non-coder can take care of basic website needs for a civic hacker group.

Use WordPress For Blog About Civic Hacking

If you blog about civic hacking, WP might be a good choice for publishing your blog. (Of course, it’s good for blogging about any other topic, too…) A couple excellent examples of this are GovFresh by Luke Fretwell and Civic Innovations by Mark Headd. Those two guys are neck deep in the world of civic hacking and they do software development, so if they feel WP is a good tool for them, that’s a pretty good reason for other civic hacking bloggers to consider using WP for their blog.

Build WP Site As A Civic Hack

WP can often be a valuable tool for parts of a civic hack as shown by these examples:

  1. civic hacks resource centralCreate a directory of civic hacks so it’s easier for people to learn about civic hacks, especially i they’re trying to find certain types of civic hacks. This type of directory is talked about in the blog post “CivicHacks ResourceCentral v.0.1” and “Hosted Blog Instead Of Wiki For CivicHacks Resource Central v.0.1?
  2. Build an information, communication and promotion website for individual civic hacks, esp guerilla civic hacks done by non-coders, e.g. neighborhood park, a la “Guerrilla Civic Hacking: Portable Artist Workspace & Street Made By People” or “Hacking City Spaces: A Third Place On The Fourth Floor.”

Developing Civic Hacker Themes And Plugins For WP

WP themes “allow users to change the look and functionality of a WordPress website and they can be installed without altering the content or health of the site.” A WP plugin is software that can be used to extend and expand the functionality of your WP website. There are WP themes for just about every type of organization or purpose under the sun, including things like education, small businesses, churches, and libraries, and WP’s 40,000+ plugins can make your website do just about anything you want it to do.

Because WP themes and plugins make it easy to customize a website for specific purposes, one “civic hacking” activity could be to develop one or several themes or plugins that help the websites better perform their civic duty. Below are examples of a civic hacking theme and plugin.

  1. govpress themeLuke Fretwell built GovPress, a WP theme for government websites which has been downloaded over 56,000 times. According to its website, GovPress is “designed to meet the needs of government and other civic-focused organizations” and is “mobile-friendly and adapts to all devices (PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone).”
  2. In May 2013 the White House released an API for We The People, a petition application designed to give citizens a direct line to the White House…[The We The People] plugin allows WordPress site owners to search and embed petitions from We The People into WordPress.” (If you want to read the backstory on this civic hack, read the post, “buckeye interactive at the national day of civic hacking at the white house.”)

If you’re a skilled WP developer who wants to make it easier for non-coder civic hackers to build better civic hack websites with WP, consider creating new themes or plugins.

Last but not least, a reminder for those within driving distance of Appleton, Wisconsin, USA, to put May 9, 2016 on their calendar for the civic hacking meetup at the Appleton Makerspace. See my earlier Events Wrangling post about the May 9 meetup for more details. If you want to learn more about civic hacking before getting down to work, show up at 6 PM. If you have limited time or just want to wait until the focused effort begins, show up at the 7 PM official start time for the meetup.

See you on May 9th!

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For more about what civic hacking is, see:

What Is Civic Hacking??
Why Good Hackers Make Good Citizens

NE Wisconsin residents interested in civic hacking may also want to consider coming to the TEDx De Pere Middle School event because one of the talks will be on civic hacking.

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