Thursday, June 25, 2015

‘Asks’ & ‘Offers’ -- Community-Builder And CivicTech Marketplace

A common problem for civic hacking seems to be that many civic hackers, especially ones relatively new to the game, aren’t sure what government information is available for them to hack on, or what type of civic hacks government workers would appreciate or utilize to help the government provide better services for its citizens.

Looking at it from the other side, because civic hacking is so new to NE Wisconsin, most government workers in the area have no idea what data or information might be of interest to the civic hackers.

One attempt to bring the two sides closer together and help them understand the wants and needs of the ‘other’ group is the use of Switchboard in Portland, Oregon. “The Early Adopter Program in Portland, Oregon” explains that,
“’s encouraging for us to see how the City of Portland is trying one way to improve procurement with their Early Adopter Program...What’s interesting about the early adopter program is two things: that the platform that’s being used to power the program - Switchboard – has come from a local PDX company, and secondly that it helps government move towards thinking of services in terms of user needs. Portland is using Switchboard to power a new marketplace and community, one that lets government staff post “asks” – like a better way to update and manage the city’s 1,700 page multiple-PDF zoning code document – and “offers” from local companies and entrepreneurs – like a homegrown PDX and metro-area procurement search engine...“We’re thrilled to be using Switchboard as the platform to connect the needs of the local government bureaus to the services that the private sector can provide. Switchboard is not only our technical platform, it is also a wonderful example of the power of tech and business to improve local government,” said Vidya Spandana, Strategic Advisor to Portland Development Commission.”
Portland seems to use Switchboard mainly for getting proposals for solutions to its CivicTech or GovTech needs, but it seems like it could also be used to connect civic hackers with the government guardians of civic data for less formal purposes. A civic hacker could ‘ask’ if anyone can link him to a certain type of crime data, or tell him who to talk to regarding that topic. A city worker might see that and give the civic hacker a link to the data, or tell him to talk to Jenny in the Public Safety Division at phone number 876-5309.

A city worker in the economic development department who wants to help real estate developers or business project developers could use Switchboard to ‘offer’ a pilot project like the Parcel Assessment Tool (PAT) developed in Kansas City. The PAT is “an application for a smart phone and online. The target user is a real estate developer. The application will display viable initial information for the developer, including zoning, liens, lot dimensions, a geo locator, building envelopes, legal description, PIN, owner's name and address, school district, etc. The goal is to combine all relevant initial information to the real estate developer for a one-stop shopping experience.” An interested civic hacker could reply to that ‘offer,’ learn exactly what the city worker would like to have, look at the PAT code on GitHub, and decide to fork the code and build a pilot program for the city.

So the Switchboard system could be used in several ways to promote civic hacking by connecting government workers with civic hackers.

Switchboard can also be used as a tool to connect, strengthen and expand a community of like-minded people (in this case, civic hackers), which was its original application when it was developed for Reed College. Per the Wired Magazine article “Switchboard Is Like Craigslist Without the Creeps.”
Most startups want to grow as fast as they can. For many in the tech game, including as Paul Graham, the founder Y Combinator, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startup incubators, rapid growth is the very definition of a startup...But not all tech companies see things this way. Take Switchboard. The Portland, Oregon-base outfit offers an online service that lets people create simple sites for online communities. Using a Switchboard site, you can either “ask” for something you need or “offer” something you have. That’s it. The larger Portland startup community uses it to post job listings, offer expertise, and announce hackathons. Oberlin College in Ohio uses it to help students and alums network with each other and share job opportunities. Then there’s The Meat Collective, which helps people buy and sell sustainably raised meat. The possibilities are limitless, but Switchboard has decided to grow slowly for now, limiting and carefully screening the creation of new communities. “We value the quality of the communities, not the quantity of communities,” says Mara Zepeda, the company’s co-founder and CEO...Zepeda...originally envisioned the service as a networking platform for her alma mater, Reed College in Portland, where she served on the alumni board. She took inspiration, oddly enough, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hay Net site, where farmers can either ask for hay or offer hay for sale. She and co-founder Sean Lerner built the original Switchboard just for Reed, but they quickly realized that the platform they’d built could be useful to other communities...”
A bunch of civic hackers in NE Wisconsin already use the #dhmncivichackks Slack channel for keeping in touch with each other. I don’t know enough about Slack or Switchboard to know if they are direct competitors in terms of the function and value they offer, or if they’d be complementary tools which many people would use side by side. Because it's a platform, Slack already integrates other services like Asana, Dropbox and GitHub, and they offer an API for integrating additional services. So if NE Wisconsin coders wanted to use both Slack and Switchboard, they could likely integrate the two.

I haven’t quite figured out if Switchboard is a good or an excellent way to enable civic hackers to ask about a type of data they’re interested in and for government people to share data they think might be valuable or interesting to hackers. But it seemed like a close enough fit that I’d throw it out there to NE Wisconsin civic hacking community so that people can look at it, play with it and follow up on it with Mara Zepeda or another Switchboard rep if it seems like a fantastic fit for our situation.

Click here to go to Switchboard’s website.

Click here to see the city of Portland’s Switchboard site.

Click here for a related post, “Hacking the RFI Process” by Mark Headd, uber civic hacker.


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