Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Do Non-Programmers Participate In Civic Hacking?

If you have read about civic hacking and civic hackathons (see the posts on this blog for the past few days), you know that many civic hackers are computer programmers, also known as coders. But you may wonder if non-programmers, or non-coders, participate in civic hacking.

The answer is "YES!"

Many types of people who are not programmers are great civic hackers and have lots of fun
participating in civic hackathons or other aspects of civic hacking. The graphic at the right shows a few of the types of people who are not programmers (also known as developers).

In today's post, I'll present excerpts from online sources talking about what non-coders can do at a civic hackathon. Then in tomorrow's post, I'll answer the questions of "what can I do if I'm not a programmer" in a slightly different way with a bulleted list of specific civic hacking activities non-coders can do. These two blog posts won't cover everything, but I hope they make it clear that computer programming isn't the only skill needed for civic hacking.

Ideation is one aspect of civic hacking where non-programmers can have a huge impact and should get involved. For those not familiar with the term, Wikipedia says ideation is the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas. For a community new to civic hacking, identifying potential and worthwhile civic hacks is an important activity. As Laurenellen McCann says in "Crafting Civil Tech,"
"Ideation is...the brainstorming, tinkering, talking, researching, reflecting, and observing  stage where opportunities for technical impact are discovered and articulated...Ideation can be about drilling into the specifics of a problem (“school lunches”) or wayfinding within a broader issue (“education”). This is the pioneer space of civic tech: where we need to engage with people outside of our own sphere if we hope to create tools that have meaning and social impact."
If you like technology but can't or don't want to write code for civic hacks, one role you should consider is being an 'open source gardener.' Steve Klabnik talks about this in his post "How to be an open source gardener."
"I do a lot of work on open source, but my most valuable contributions haven’t been
code. Writing a patch is the easiest part of open source. The truly hard stuff is all of the rest: bug trackers, mailing lists, documentation, and other management tasks...It’s kind of like a garden: you need someone to pull weeds, and do it often and regularly."
If interested in the civic hacking gardener role, you can find lots more onine information like "Roles In Open Source Projects" and "14 Ways to Contribute to Open Source without Being a Programming Genius or a Rock Star" by searching for what a non-coder can do on open source projects.

Being connected to different organizations and groups in a city can also be a valuable quality for a non-programmer to bring to civic hacking. In "Why The Civic Hacking Community Needs Non-coders," Kristen Gillette explains how two Philadelphia civic hackers worked on this non-coding aspect of projects.
"Part of the reason Cycle Philly has been so successful is because of the non-coding skills, such as his communication and design skills, that Acri contributed to the project, including his experience communicating with other organizations...“That organization is all about collaborating among the different city agencies, so having a little bit of experience with that, I think, helped me figure out who we need to talk to to get some interest in actually planning around the [Cycle Philly] project,” Acri said. Acri and his team members, Lloyd Emelle and Kathryn Killebrew, worked with The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to help plan the app...Another successful Code for Philly application, greenSTEM Network, owes some of its success to non-coding members on its team. greenSTEM Network connects youth to the environment by giving students in Philadelphia-area schools the ability to monitor data from gardens, green roofs, and stormwater infrastructure. The project was created by Matthew Fritch,  an environmental engineer with the Philadelphia Water Department, who didn’t have any experience in coding when he first came up with the idea."
Wellington, New Zealand held its second civic hackathon in 2015 with the theme of "How do we increase Community Engagement?" The hackathon included non-technologists who were second generation civic hackers focusing on improving their community through use of open technology tools, per this article:
"The overall attendance included all age groups. It was really good to see non-technologists there, though by the end of the weekend we did have some of them signed up and tweeting. WellComm was a group of four individuals that didn’t have a lot of technology experience between them. They created an online Wiki that collates all the data about community organisations, Council data, and the mass of other data...The second group built a crowd sourced ideas website and application. The website connects people’s ideas in the community with a crowd funded way. The third group built a website called Attractivate. They took on the difficult challenge of dealing with apathy. It is one of the greatest challenges in community engagement and can be seen in the numbers of people who don’t vote...The final group was a bunch of enthusiastic geeks that built a Reddit style website for community ideas and issues. Anyone can post to the site and the issue or idea can be up, or down, voted showing what the community thinks is a priority. This is a particularly good tool for the younger was great to see a lot of Wellington City Councillors in attendance asking questions, providing feedback, and one...who spent most of the first day working in a team with his sleeves rolled up."
It isn't a high priority for the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015, but if we can build a strong community of Fox Valley or northeast Wisconsin civic hackers, we might want to consider a civic hacking summit similar to what Austin, Texas did in February 2015. No code needs to be written during the event, and a summit like that would be most effective if there is a good mix of coders and non-coders.
"For this year’s Code Across Austin event, we decided to take a new approach to the conventional hackathon model...Conventional hackathons usually combine project ideation, development, and deployment into a single event. The result is one or two projects with real potential, while the rest fall by the wayside. The 2015 Civic Hack Summit, in addressing the aforementioned pitfalls, was designed to produce a collection of plans for projects that could anchor a year-long civic hacking effort."
Once a civic hacking regional community has indicated a desire to work together on team projects, having a summit like Austin did can help bring more direction and effectiveness to the hacking community. There's no point, however, in planning for long term civic hacking if there's not a critical mass of civic hackers to work on those projects. Also, summit participants can speak more knowledgeably about civic hack issues if they've first worked to develop or improve one or more hacks, so it's best to schedule this kind of summit after people have worked for a year or two on building or modifying hacks.

In summary, there's a whole spectrum of ways to participate in civic hacking if you're a non-coder. One excellent way for non-coders to start their civic hacker career is to go to a civic hackathon and either volunteer to work on a hack that's of high interest to you or choose a hack team leader you like and ask if their team has anything you can help with. If you live in Appleton or the surrounding northeast Wisconsin area, Register Today for the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015.

Tomorrow's post will have a bulleted list of specific civic hacking activities non-programmers can work on.


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