Civic Tech Organizing: A Tale of Two Cities

Civic Hack Day in Baltimore - February 12, 2011

Civic Hack Day in Baltimore – February 12, 2011

In early 2012, I had the opportunity to present at the annual South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, TX. The focus of my presentation was the lessons learned from two civic hacking events in late 2011 that I had helped organize in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

This was an exciting time for me professionally. After leaving government to become a professional software developer and technology evangelist in the early 2000s, I had been drawn back into the world of government a few years prior through the open data movement. By 2011, I was working regularly with budding civic tech communities in two different but geographically close cities. I was able to collaborate with groups of people who cared deeply about the future of their cities and who were committed to making a difference.

It was also an exciting time for civic tech—Code for America was launching its Brigade network at the 2012 SXSWi conference and while there I had a chance to meet and talk with Jen Pahlka, Tim O’Reilly, and Kevin Curry (who went on to build out the Code for America Brigade program and scale it nationally). I was so moved by Jen’s vision for civic tech that I ended up leaving my job with a telecommunications startup and joined Code for America myself a few short weeks after SXSWi ended.

Thinking back on this time, it strikes me that the experience of the two cities I got to talk about then can tell us a lot about what it takes to build and grow a civic tech community. I think it’s exciting that there are places where leaders have essentially figured out how to nurture and sustain civic tech. But I would argue that there are many places where this issue has not yet been resolved, and even some places where civic tech groups once flourished by have have since gone dormant.

Of interest to me personally, there are also a great many places—particularly small and mid-sized cities—where civic tech organizing has not yet begun.

Then and Now

In many ways, Baltimore and Philadelphia were in similar places from a civic tech perspective in 2011.

The City of Baltimore had just launched an official open data portal and was regularly publishing data to it. A series of small(ish) hackathons were organized and there seemed to be a growing dialogue between the local technology community and city government around data and civic technology.

At the same time, Philadelphia was in a similar place. The city had not yet adopted an open data policy or launched an official open data portal. Philly benefited from being one of the first cities to partner with Code for America and there seemed to be a growing acceptance inside city government for publishing data and generally supporting civic tech. Earlier that year, a local technology company called Azavea built and launched what would become the city’s official open data portal—Open Data Philly.

And yet, if we look at these two cities today they appear to be in very different places with regard to civic tech. Philadelphia has a large and active civic tech community with strong connections to city government—city officials are regular participants in civic tech events, and a recent civic hacking event was kicked off from City Hall by the Mayor himself. This community has helped spawn some of the most innovative civic tech solutions in the country, like Councilmatic—which has since gone on to be adopted in other cities like Chicago and New York.

Baltimore, however, doesn’t have a clearly identifiable civic tech community—though there have been efforts to create one. There are no regular meetups of people interested in working on civic issues, no regular events to bring the community together and grow it, no regular interactions between city officials and outside civic technologists. This is not because the city lacks passionate, talented people interested in working on civic tech. Far from it.

Baltimore has not been completely silent on the civic tech front since 2011. There have been a few events—like Hack the Parks—that started to build up the relationship between city government and the technology community. These events were largely due to the efforts of people like Andrew Hazlett and Sharon Paley (now with the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University). But the organization behind these events—the Greater Baltimore Technology Council—is now defunct and no similar organization in Baltimore has moved to fill the role once played by the GBTC in leading civic tech organizing.

The Digital Harbor Foundation, under the leadership by Andrew Coy—now at the White House, and one of the co-organizers of the civic hacking event in Baltimore I talked about at SXSW in 2012—has developed some pioneering youth technology initiatives in Baltimore. But these efforts seem to operate in a different space from the one we typically expect a civic tech community to occupy. In fact, they seem almost ideally positioned to act as a feeder program for a larger civic tech effort—bringing in young people with passion for their city and arming them with technical skills they can use to make a difference.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening largely because of the absence in Baltimore of an organized civic tech community that we typically see in other cities. There isn’t an organized community to feed these youngsters into that’s focused on using technology for the public good in Baltimore.

Both cities have an abundance of factors that I think are critical in helping develop a healthy civic technology community. They both face some pretty significant challenges, have developing startup communities and are full of talented, passionate people that want to work to make their city better. They also both have governments that at least publish some open data and have a formal policy around releasing data.

But beyond simply publishing data, there is at least one factor that is different—the level of involvement by city government in Philadelphia and Baltimore in their respective civic tech communities.

The Role of the City

Writing about his work in supporting Chi Hack Night—the wildly successful and influential civic hacking meetup in the City of Chicago—Christopher Whitaker notes the important role played by city government in building the Chicago ecosystem:

A big part of why we’re able to have as much impact as we do is because we have built a civic innovation ecosystem…each of these different parts compliments the other. The City of Chicago provides the data that powers the engine. The Chi Hack Night provides a place for talent and collaboration. The Smart Chicago Collaborative provides institutional support.

Having city officials engaged and present at civic technology events is a key ingredient to their success, growth and longevity. As a former city official that was present at a lot of civic technology events in Philly my opinion on this issue is not unbiased. But this is a trend that is easy to spot in cities that have active civic tech communities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.

And if I had to point to one single factor that has stymied the growth of an organized civic tech community in Baltimore—a place with all of the other ingredients necessary for one to flourish—I would point to a lack of active involvement and support from city government.

And if this is right, then I think there are some important lessons here for supporters of civic technology.

Lessons Learned

There are lots of places where the issue of organizing and sustaining civic technology has not yet been resolved.

Clearly there are places like Chicago where great strides have been made due to years of investment and institutional support. But there are many other places that have not yet started down the road of civic tech. And as is generally the case with support for open data, these places tend to be small and mid-sized cities that lack institutions like Smart Chicago to support nascent civic tech efforts.

The lessons from Philly and Baltimore also suggest that the progress we have seen in larger cities may be more fragile than we think it is. If direct and enthusiastic support from city government is essential to successfully organizing civic tech efforts, then what happens when that support goes away?

New York City, under Mayor Bill deBlasio, and Philadelphia, under new Mayor Jim Kenney, suggest that a commitment from city government to open data and engagement with the civic tech community can survive the transition from one administration to the next. But I think it makes sense to consider what happens to civic tech communities when this commitment doesn’t survive that kind of transition, or evaporates for other reasons.

In Madison, Wisconsin, an enthusiastic and growing civic tech community has grown largely stagnant because of a lack of support from city government and hesitancy to release useful data. Derek Eder—one of the organizer of Chi Hack Night in Chicago—in talking about the struggles in the civic tech community in Madison, has said:

I think the government, especially the city, deserves a lot of credit for helping start the community [in Chicago].

He’s right, and we shouldn’t forget this.

Far from being a resolved issue, civic tech organizing in many places is still in its infancy. Rather than declaring victory, our work should now be focused on institutionalizing things that support civic tech so we can help ensure it survives going forward.

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