The first Code for Philly hackathon I went to was incidentally also the first hackathon I ever organized. Now a year later, I get to lead one of the largest, most active civic tech communities in the country alongside its founder Chris Alfano.
If you haven’t been to one of our events or know what we do, it’s pretty straightforward. Code for Philly volunteers use tech and data as an act of citizenship, personal development, and community-building with the goal of making Philly into the city we know it can be. We call that civic hacking, and we believe it comes in many forms that includes, but is not limited to, code.
Frankly, Philly is pretty great. We want to keep it that way.
In addition to our weekly meetup events program, we run signature hackathons to have fun, generate new ideas, cultivate cohesion within our community, and branch out to include new potential civic hackers.
I came to Code for Philly as a researcher mostly intrigued by the people who meet weekly to work on social problems with technology, incentivized by pizza, beer, and an itch to make tech a means rather than just an end. Now, as Executive Director, my job is to grow our community of civic hackers and build the Code for Philly name so that volunteer projects go beyond a good, citizen engagement exercise.
So here are 3 reasons I want you at my favorite hackathon of the year:
1. City departments are releasing data AND improving data quality.
Let me pause here for a second. For reference, Philadelphia leads open data. Not just leads, dominates. We’re nationally renowned. The team at the Office of Innovation and Technology has gone above and beyond to make Philadelphia award-winning in the area of open data and innovation. What makes that team so special? Open data in Philly isn’t checking a box. The open data team is full of top talent known across the country for their expertise, and they come direct from our civic tech community. They understand the power of open data and citizen-centered program and product development. Not to mention they’ve made open data releases wins for the departments releasing the data—not just a win for OIT.
That’s why the Board of Ethics spent the last several months cleaning data that they released for last year’s DemHack. Again, pause. They released a dataset, no one wanted to hack on it because it wasn’t clean enough, and then the Board of Ethics went back and spent months getting it into a usable format. So yeah, the Philly open data team has buy in and it means that you have prime data for your #DemHack2016 project. Use it.
2. Holy moly, do we have awesome partners.
Okay, by now you shouldn’t trust me to not pause. Committee of 70—you know the organization that works 24/7 on improving the democratic process—felt like a Code for Philly hackathon could help them make use of the data they have and think differently about how to solve some tough problems in elections, campaigns, and the whole system. We agree. Tech can make a difference when it’s intentional. #DemHack2016 is the right place and the right time to have real impact on our democratic systems. Be part of that change.
City Council, Philly 311, the Board of Ethics, the Commissioner’s Office have all been part of getting data accessible and involving key subject-matter experts for this year’s hackathon. The Innovation Lab is supporting the effort by hosting us in their space and engaging community members to interact positively with city government. Young Involved Philadelphia wants to get its community members to participate by bringing ideas to the table in the hopes of seeing more young people entering into the political space.
There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm coming together. We can’t let this time go to waste.
3. We need subject-matter experts and seasoned practitioners to be data sources and visioneers.
You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard, “I love what you do, and I want to help! But I’m not a coder :/ ” Honestly, me simply saying, “You don’t have to be a coder!” isn’t enough. Because that’s only stating an absence of a specific skillset, not the presence of a mindset. So this might be a little weird to hear, but if you’re a person with in-depth knowledge in an area (for the purposes of this hackathon, democracy) I want you to think of yourself as a datasource and a visioneer.
Civic tech projects run on data. That data is usually quantitative in the form of formatted digital files. But projects needs both quantitative and qualitative data. Anecdotes and narratives help provide a larger context for projects and an intuitive direction to check if the quantitative data results appear on the right track. So all those stories and gut feelings? Those are inputs into a civic tech project that make it better. It might be the deciding factor in if a project is successful or not.
Civic tech projects need skilled practitioners to know and spotlight the most important challenges to overcome in the field. Technical experts contribute significant tools and problem-solving tactics. Subject-matter experts are the complement. They’re critical in project design and vision. Successful civic tech projects have focus from people who work directly with the large social issues on a daily basis to direct a project in collaboration with tech solutions for the greatest impact.
All convinced? Join us 3/18-3/20! Come to the Community Needs Assessment to brainstorm with other enthusiasts and think through the complex challenges prevalent in Philly democracy. Be even bolder and join us on Saturday and Sunday to hack on projects and have your prototype reviewed by industry leaders. Get all the details on the schedule and tickets on codeforphilly.org.
Code for Philly is defined by its members. Want to see something happen or think we can do things better? We want to know! Never hesitate to find us at hack night or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.