Photo credit: Chris Kendig Photography
Photo credit: Chris Kendig Photography

Regardless of your political view, it’s obvious that people don’t feel served by their government. And they don’t feel represented by their representatives. So where does that leave us?

The truth is that government was never meant to be the service provider that it is today. As a centralized system, it’s not truly equipped to serve and enforce at a block-by-block level. But we assume that government should put a trash can on every corner, sweep every street, remove blight from neighborhoods, prevent gentrification, and so on—and do it all without raising taxes higher than they are today.

We know that government cannot meet every need of every resident. That’s why there are registered community organizations (RCOs), civic associations, community development corporations (CDCs) and a range of nonprofits filling the gaps. These organizations are powered by the incredible energy of residents who give up some of their nights and weekends to invest in their community.

The question is: where do tech solutions fit in?

That’s exactly what we’re exploring with this weekend’s Civic Engagement Launchpad (CELaunchpad). Modern technology has increased expectations so greatly that residents want the same customer-centric, on-demand services we receive from corporations like Uber, Facebook, Google, etc. The Code for Philly community can bring that knowledge from the professional tech community to build tools for increasing civic engagement and improving democratic systems.

Still not sure about joining the Launchpad? Here’s the real talk about joining any tech project (and how we solve them at CELaunchpad):

#1. Product development is hard. Investing in project planning makes it easier.

Even though the products that have disrupted (and springboarded) modern tech make it look easy, building super simple products requires a lot of thought, testing, refinement, and just straight-up hard work. It’s a billion dollar industry that we’re stuffing into a volunteer context.

The good news is that we know we can’t just drop a bunch of professionals in a room and expect magic to take care of the rest. Part of the weekend includes professional consulting services to prepare your project for success. The City of Philadelphia will facilitate a workshop to guide teams through human-centered design (HCD) approaches to plan projects that meet real needs before diving right into development. You’ll learn a lot for your project, as well as lessons you can carry with you at work and beyond.

#2. Early engineers have a small portfolio. Seasoned engineers can’t share their work done for proprietary client work. Open source projects build your portfolio and marketability.

This is actually one of the toughest problems for people working in software engineering, and yet so few people actually invest in a side project. Even if you’re a seasoned professional, if you don’t have a portfolio the hiring manager will ask you for code samples and may ask you to complete a code assignment. Here’s an insider tip—your portfolio can make the difference between you and another candidate. As a manager responsible for hiring, I’m looking at the quality of your side project as well as the creativity, complexity, and your self-motivation for moving the work forward. (Full-disclosure, my employer PromptWorks is a supporter of this event).

The solution? Open source your project. At Code for Philly, all of our projects are required to open source their work so that others can use it and volunteers can show off the many hours of their investment. Do work that you’re proud of, and you’ll build a portfolio you love showing off. Open source projects demonstrate your ability to identify a user need and define the best technical solution; your ability to organize and manage your work; your ability to work on a team and collaborate; your aptitude for communicating about all of these things as a cohesive narrative.

#3. Joining a project is awkward. Launchpad teams start from scratch.

If you’ve ever tried to jump into something halfway after it’s started, you know how weird it can feel to come and find a way to contribute. People working together on a project have already made many of the decisions together and have developed a working relationship. It feels kind of intrusive and unwelcome to want to jump in once the ball is rolling.

In many ways, this really depends on each person and their level of comfort with social interactions. But! Even with that in mind, the Launchpad is a great way to jumpstart getting involved with a community. Everyone is starting from the same place and there for the same reasons. Having that shared starting, individuals form into teams and start with a project from the beginning.

#4. Hackathons are fun, but don’t get results. The CELaunchpad is designed to live beyond the weekend.

Yes, this is perhaps the hardest nut to crack—how to make a volunteer side project sustainable and impactful. You burn a whole weekend, maybe meet some people, but the project ultimately fizzles because people stop having time.

What we found at Code for Philly is that a weekend is just not enough time for a hackathon. That’s why we changed our format and renamed the event to better reflect (and reset) expectations around the outcomes for the event. And yes, even with a month, projects will still fizzle. But many projects come back to our weekly events to work on their projects as they have time. Some of our longest-standing projects have been coming to Code for Philly for 2-3 years.

Read more about why we made the format change and [announcement for CELaunchpad](Civic Engagement Launchpad, a Truly Philadelphian Event).

Here’s what to expect at #CELaunchpad:

Friday, March 24th Sold out

Project Brainstorm in City Hall’s Caucus Room. City Council uses this room to meet and converse before City Council Meetings. This is a chance to engage community members and stakeholders to share ideas and to develop opportunity statements. You can submit your ideas early by using our Project Idea Submission Form.

Saturday, March 25th

Project Day. Teams organize around the ideas presented the night before. The morning includes structured project design and development workshops so projects can effectively spend their development time over the month.

Tuesday, April 25th

Demo Night. In front of a panel of distinguished local experts, teams can show off what they accomplished over the course of the Launchpad.

Between the Project Brainstorm and Project Demo Night, weekly events and other planned programming will support teams as they develop their project.