Friday, August 14, 2015

Civic Hacking Meetups & Code for America Brigades

Appleton Makerspace in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA
The next NE Wisconsin civic hacking event will be an informal meetup on Wednesday, Aug 19th, at the Appleton Makerspace. See last week’s post “Civic Hacking, August 19, Appleton: Put It On Your Calendar!” for details of the event.

The August 19th event will be the third civic hacking event in NE Wisconsin. The first event was the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 on June 6, 2015, and the second was the informal meetup on July 22, 2015. We’ll likely follow up on next week’s civic hacker activity with another informal event in September, maybe a weekend one, since students will be back in school then.

We haven’t yet plugged enough people into NE Wisconsin civic hacking to make it definitely worth thinking about having a Code for America (CfA) brigade, but at some point that’s an option if someone is interested in pursuing it.

Code for America Brigades “are local volunteer groups that bring together community members to help make government work better. Brigades use technology to build new tools to help with local civic issues. Code for America supports Brigade chapters with resources, tools, and access to the wider civic technology movement.” As of June 2014, the Code for America Brigade program was active in 35 cities and had organizers in 54 cities. I think the closest brigade to NE Wisconsin is the Chicago group.

A few of the cities with CfA brigades are Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Miami. The original brigades formed in large US cities, while some of the most recent brigades are in cities, like Rockford, IL, that do not have million+ populations.

There is a lot of info online about becoming a CfA brigade, the reasons to form a brigade, the onboarding process, and pretty much everything you need to know regarding brigades. Rather than repeat those topics here, I decided to take a look at a couple ways NE Wisconsin could launch a somewhat unique brigade. Here are my initial thoughts regarding a brigade in our region.

  1. NE Wisconsin has enough people to build a sustainable brigade, but the civic hacking community in this area has not yet connected a critical mass of civic hackers to form a brigade. All that’s really needed is three+ supportive organizations in NE Wisconsin and a dedicated person who sees lots of value in having a CfA brigade here.
  2. It seems like a typical brigade has a wide variety of people in it with most of the early active members being coders who live in the same city, or at least in one metro area. That’s probably not going to work because of the size of NE Wisconsin cities. The following points are ways we can compensate for our low population density.
  3. Remote Collaboration. We can’t realistically expect people to drive 30 - 50 miles frequently, or further, for civic hacking meetups. An alternative is to put a lot of energy into making remote collaboration work well for NE Wisconsin civic hacking. We can establish eight to twelve satellite locations spread throughout the region, and on civic hacking meetup nights, most participants will go to the satellite location nearest them. Those satellites will have various types of video hookups to the designated lead site for that day. The designated lead site will rotate between the different satellite locations. Sometimes people will go to the satellite not nearest to them, possibly to be at the lead location for that day, to work in-person with other members of a team they’re working with, or just to have the fun of working at a different location. A lot more details to figure out over time, but we could show the rest of the world how to do a distributed brigade in
    regions with low population densities. The DHMN (Distributed Hacker/Maker Network) has been a lead promoter for civic hacking in this region, and Distributed was included in the group's name partly in reference to geographic distribution. So it would be fitting to have the CfA brigade in our area be a distributed group.
  4. Student-Focused Brigade. NE Wisconsin could organize the first (AFAIK) student-focused brigade. College and high school students could organize and run the brigade. Many of the civic hacks could be education and youth-oriented. Our region has ~ 20 colleges and 50+ high schools. If just five students from each of those schools became members of the brigade, that’s 350+ members. If average participation in a monthly civic hacking meetup was 10% (and I’m sure it would be higher), there would be a minimum of 35 people working regularly on civic hacks. Being student-focused does not mean 'students only,' but it does mean they organize the brigade, they lead it, and they can drive the agenda for the group. As an older civic hacker, I think it would be an interesting twist for the world-weary adults to defer to the students instead of expecting the reverse to happen.
  5. Women-Focused Brigade. Our area could launched the first (AFAIK) women-focused brigade. This brigade could be organized and coordinated by Women In Technology, WI, which was formed not too long ago and has plans to do some amazing programs in our state, starting in NE Wisconsin. With all the current focus on gender in the tech industry, now would be a great time to have a women-focused brigade. Like the student-focused brigade, having the focus on a
    specific demographic doesn’t mean that other demographics are excluded from participating.
  6. Developer Companies-Focused Brigade. To both promote civic hacking in our region and to strengthen and connect the tech talent in NE Wisconsin, we could form a collaborative developer companies-focused brigade. By that, I mean the companies in our area who are primarily focused on providing developer / coder services to their customers will take the lead in organizing and in the early sustaining of the brigade. I don’t know the names of all the developer companies in the region, but they would include Omni, Skyline, Zyquest, Infinity, DMI, Heartland/Avastone, and probably 10 to 100 other companies. Having 16 to 106 coder companies organize a CfA brigade certainly means we’ll have lots of developers at the civic hacking meetups right off the bat.

Readers of the blog will likely think of a couple more special ways a brigade could be formed and supported. As mentioned above, though, two key components are needed to even start thinking about brigade incubation and formation. One is to have at least three organizations committed to
serious support of the brigade for several years. The other is to have one person who feels strongly that a brigade has high value for NE Wisconsin and is extremely enthusiastic about the process of organizing and promoting a brigade.

(As an aside, if that enthusiastic organizer is located, those three+ organizations strongly supporting the brigade should send the organizer to the Code for America Summit.)

Just a reminder -- I hope to see all the readers of this blog at the Appleton Makerspace on August 19th for the next NE Wisconsin civic hacking meetup! And each of the blog readers should bring at least two or three of their friends. Or coworkers. Or neighbors...


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