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Cracking Oakland's Code

Can a group of hackers figure out new answers to the city's old problems?

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The story of hacking begins with model trains. In 1946, a group of MIT students started the Tech Model Railroad Club to fiddle with and build an elaborate system of miniature trains. Half of the club was in it for pure nostalgia: They painted the meticulous replicas and waxed poetic about an aging pinnacle of high-speed transportation. The other contingent, dubbed the "Signals and Power Subcommittee," oversaw the massive wiring that powered the elaborate system of crisscrossing train tracks.

Using stray equipment cobbled together from the campus phone system, the S&P members strung together wires and dials that allowed for complex manipulation of the miniature trains. In 1959, they wrote a dictionary for their particular jargon, which became the foundation of hacker culture. Hack: 1) an article or project without a constructive end; 2) work undertaken on bad self-advice; 3) an entropy booster; 4) to produce, or attempt to produce, a hack. By taking existing stuff, tinkering with it, and figuring out how to give it a clever new purpose, these students were producing what they called hacks.

And this spirit remains largely the same in today's generation of self-identified, decidedly non-nefarious hackers. Such was evident on a Friday evening in December, when a group of them gathered on the second floor of an office building on 22nd Street and Broadway for the opening party for Oakland's newest hackerspace, Sudo Room. The event included at least some of the typical party indicators: people, bottles of whiskey and cheap wine, and the glaring buzz of dubstep floating above the awkward party chatter. But there were also scattered laptops, a giant vat of an experimental kombucha brew, more than two hundred books on topics as disparate as coding language and law, and equipment for radio broadcasting. Sudo Room intends, like the Model Train Club before it, to cater to all sorts of hacks.

Most people, however, were huddled around a contraption attached to a door leading to the office from the elevator. Someone across the room typed something onto his laptop and shot a thumbs up; a second later, a round piece of bright orange plastic over the door's lock made a whirring sound, a dial turned, and the lock popped open. The hackers were enthralled. It wasn't just a party trick — it was the group's first hack. Rather than distribute keys to all the members of the hackerspace, the hackers wrote some simple code, used their 3-D printer to make precisely modeled plastic discs, and strung them together with roughly $5 worth of hardware to engineer a way to open their building's door just by entering a password online.

"But the best thing is, we've created a solution that other people now don't have to work to create," said Matt Senate, one of the founders of the space who is also a member of Open Oakland, a motley crew of around twenty civic hackers whose goal is to change Oakland with technology. (Full disclosure, I've known Senate since college.) The code and the 3-D models are all available for free online, so anyone with basic coding know-how can set up a similar system.

That's one of the central tenets of hacking culture: copy everything and share everything accordingly. (Sudo Room's door displays a giant yin-yang with "CTRL-C" and "CTRL-V" written above and below it — the keyboard commands for "copy and paste," a mantra equivalent to "live free or die.") The idea is that only by operating in a completely open environment where collaboration can occur can ideas be constantly improved. The same premise defines the so-called "open source" movement, which focuses on code that is freely available for everyone to take, remix, and refine to their specific needs.

It's an idea rooted in efficiency: Why reinvent the wheel when you could spend that same time making a much more awesome wheel?

Cash-strapped public agencies could especially benefit from this concept, but not surprisingly, they've been slow on the uptake. "Cities, as much as you try to get them to copy each other, they're way too adamant about not doing that," said Max Ogden, a former Code for America fellow who spent most of 2011 creating apps for the City of Boston and who now spends much of his time hacking in Oakland. "They act like 'copy' is a bad word, but it's what open source is based on."

Accordingly, one of Code for America's main goals has been to get cities to become more comfortable with the idea of copying each other. The same code used to make Code for America's "Adopt a Hydrant" site in Boston, for example — which encouraged residents to take responsibility for individual fire hydrants, which often get buried in snow — was used to make an "Adopt a Siren" site in Honolulu, where there is currently a problem with people stealing batteries from tsunami sirens. Earlier this year, the City of Chicago bought a bunch of beer, recruited some civic hackers, and launched "Adopt a Sidewalk" with a similar premise: to get citizens to work together to shovel snow from pavement in their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, some cities are investing in tech innovation as a permanent fixture of government. In 2010, Boston's City Hall created an Office of New Urban Mechanics, and a few weeks ago Philadelphia followed suit. The departments basically serve as low-cost research and development: Bring together civic hackers, fiddle with existing code, and test out new ways of solving old problems. "I think more cities are realizing you don't have to be really up to date with technology to innovate," said Code for America's Pahlka. "You can tackle these things without upgrading all your systems and being a state-of-the-art city."

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