The Room Where It Happened
Corey Acri was new to the city when he emailed Code for Philly founder Chris Alfano, wondering if maybe he could attend a meeting. Corey explained that he knew some coding, but was concerned he wasn’t at a level that would be beneficial for Code for Philly. Chris assured him no coding experience was necessary; come to a meeting, see what happens.
At Corey’s first meeting he mentioned his interest in collecting data on biking in Philadelphia to the person seated next to him…who just happened to be the City of Philadelphia’s Chief Data Officer. He quickly turned around and put Corey in touch with Greg Krykewcycz, manager of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s Office of Transit, Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning. Together, they fleshed out interest into fully formed idea and soon they had something Corey could bring back to Code for Philly.
The idea was for an app, CyclePhilly, that would record bicycle trips and collect data related to the routes cyclists take around Philadelphia. The app would then deliver the data to the DVRPC for analysis.
“I’m still wide eyed about it,” Corey admits, when he explains just how quickly everything happened. “To this day, it’s mind blowing to me that I, a new resident of Philadelphia, could walk into a [Code for Philly] meeting and talk to somebody from the Mayor’s office. The Chief Data Officer. I didn’t even know it was him. He was just this guy sitting next to me.”
There’s a lot to be said for getting a bunch of smart people together in one place. “You read in books about a lot of early tech projects,” Corey says, “[and] a lot of great stuff was done just because so many people were together and accessible to each other.”
Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
For almost a year the Code for Philly CyclePhilly team of Corey, Kat Killebrew, and Lloyd Emelle worked on the project while also meeting regularly with Greg at DVRPC.
Corey is very quick to give credit where it is due and point to the efforts of Lloyd and Kat when it comes to coding on the project. “They did most of it,” he explains. The team had, at first, thought they could run with open source code from similar projects in Atlanta and San Francisco, but the code proved to be frustratingly out of date.
“Lloyd and Kat rebuilt it from scratch,” Corey says. He also adds that while the old code wasn’t usable, it was helpful. “[it] gave us a really good framework for what to do.”
Corey had never worked on an iOS or Android project before CyclePhilly. “I thought, this is so cool! I’m going to have an app!” He laughs as he remembers his excitement. Or maybe he’s laughing at his own naiveté in regards to embarking on an iOS/Android project since the next thing he says, while still laughing, is, “I hate them [now].”
He explains that working on an iOS project or Android project is just too restricting for him. He’ll never do it again. He points out, though, that the fact that he knows that now about himself is a big perk of his involvement in Code for Philly.
“You get exposed in a non-committed environment to experiment,” he says, comparing Code for Philly to a sandbox. “You learn about what you like and what you don’t like and some of the more practical applications of technology.” That, to Corey, was an important experience.
As was his work with the DVRPC. “Partnerships, in any project, not just a civic tech project„ are so important.” Being able to work with the DVRPC, he explains, and watching other projects at Code for Philly get off the ground through similar partnerships, hit home for him just how necessary cooperation is in order for civic tech projects to succeed.
And partnering with the DVRPC was, Corey thinks, part of what made it easy to get people interested in CyclePhilly.
“We’re going to collect this data and it’s not going to go into a vacuum,” Corey says. “It’s going to be used by the DVRPC. We made that promise.” And the DVRPC in turn promised to share the data with their regional partners, a group that includes the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, SEPTA, and the Mayor’s Office. That’s the sort of thing that would appeal to anyone passionate about biking in Philadelphia.
Driven By A Common Cause
When pressed on what made CyclePhilly so successful, Corey points to the things you’d expect: the low barrier of participation, the “for Philly from Philly” marketing, support from Code for Philly and the DVRPC. And then he mentions something unexpected—the shared values of the CyclePhilly team.
Everyone who bought into the project cared, genuinely, about collecting this data and about biking in Philadelphia. Corey still has problems believing how much they all got along—Lloyd, Kat, himself, even Greg at DVRPC. He truly thinks it all goes back to shared values, something that probably could be said for a lot of people who volunteer their time towards civic tech projects.
“Code for Philly is a really good way to link people up who have similar value systems,” Corey says. “And I think that’s what leads to successful teams.”
It meant that when one of them got busy with work, one of the others would step up to pick up the slack so the project didn’t lose any momentum. That kind of ready and willingness to step in when needed depends on a shared belief the project you’re working on is worthwhile.
And it will be work. Corey doesn’t shy away from recognizing that. Even volunteers with no technical background will have to work hard when it comes to Code for Philly projects. Projects require varying numbers of volunteers with varying skill sets. And job requirements are definitely subject to change.
“You gotta be willing to be the project manager at some points,” Corey says. “I think in civic tech it’s more like a project advocate. You have to fight against not having any money, and everything being done on a volunteer basis, and having to rally the team to get some hard work done. It’s not like it’s not hard work. It’s a full time job if you want a project to succeed on a larger scale.”
But it’s hard work that Corey nonetheless insists leads to some “crazy and amazing” results.