1. Local Government Needs are More Than Technological

    Look, I know you’re ready to talk about data.1 About APIs. About open standards, tech policy, RFCs, PDFs, and all the other juicy stuff that goes into the technology part of public infrastructure. Heck, I’m ready to talk about it too, but first, I have one more place to take you:

    Upper West Side, NYC: You are in the dingy, fluorescently lit basement of a community senior center. It was perhaps a school at one point, the type of place where motivational posters thrive and multiply, and despite the pair of belly-up cockroaches in the hallway and the age of the paint on the walls, that inspirational vibe and thrum of purpose still linger.

    You arrived ten minutes late and the November meeting of Community Board 7 is just getting underway. Fifty or so people wait in the audience, aging from early 20s to early 90s, mostly white but including almost a dozen people of color. Many are browsing through the paper agendas and leaflets about housing rights workshops and neighborhood events they collected from the table at the entrance. The twenty-six board members currently present sit at tables at the front and sides of the room, while someone you can’t see calls roll. That person finally calls the meeting to order at 6:33pm, and you sit up taller in your straight-backed chair, eager to witness local government in action.

    Okay, okay: by now you’ve probably realized we’re talking about me here. I was eager to witness local government in action that Wednesday evening, and to learn what community participation looks like in New York City. I had moved to the Upper West Side (UWS) from Colorado less than a year before, and while I’d gotten city-sponsored flyers from my landlord with beautiful illustrations on what and how to recycle, I had received zero information on my new neighborhood’s civic governance.

    How did I find out about Community Boards and their role in my community? Through civic tech, of course. That summer I had attended the NYC School of Data, an event hosted by BetaNYC, the city’s major civic tech organization, where I listened to an impassioned talk about technology by Manhattan’s Borough President, met amazing people working on open data projects in the city, and learned about community boards.2 So, I looked up mine and finally a meeting happened on a night I could attend.

    If you want to understand the riveting nature of municipal agency meetings – or you care about issues affecting your community – you should go experience it first-hand.3 If you’re having trouble finding your local council or board meeting info, reach out and I’ll do my best to help. If you want a taste of what you might encounter at these events, here are my three major takeaways from the November 7, 2018, meeting, including my favorite quotes from the night:

    1. Context is everything and, for some reason, nothing.

    “The Civic Engagement Commission is a ‘1984’ concept.”
    – Community member during the Community Session

    The agenda for the meeting had been posted a few days in advance, but the items either have zero context or a single sentence description. If you suspected that any of these items have been discussed in a previous meeting, or you wanted to understand better what those items entail, you were responsible for either digging through previous meeting minutes to find more information (and there are no links to the relevant sections) or searching the internet for more explanation. Understandably, there was no time during the meeting to offer more context behind each and every item, but there was also no help that I could see for community members to more easily discover that context on their own.

    The conundrum is especially true for the Community Session, the first period in the meeting when community members are invited to speak about issues affecting them. That session spanned almost an hour, yet none of that time really included summaries or basic context for the issues covered. Luckily, the day before was Election Day and I’d done my research on my ballot and local issues before I came, so I wasn’t as lost as I would’ve been otherwise. I knew, for example, what the speaker was referring to in the above quote: the creation of a Civic Engagement Commission to promote civic participation had just been approved by NYC voters. I don’t agree that this initiative is something out of an Orwellian dystopia, but it is a gem of a quote, isn’t it?

    I’d love to see more context and cross-referencing between agendas, meeting minutes, and other documents from the community board so that at future meetings (and outside of meetings), I can better follow and understand long-running issues or topics new to me.4 I know this is more logistically difficult, but it would also be great to have some mechanism to share context about updates brought to the meetings. Unfortunately a lot of people who give updates also leave afterwards, and there aren’t any breaks, making it difficult to ask for more details from these folks directly.

    2. Community and Community Board members alike don’t fully understand meeting procedures.

    “Are we voting for swapping the two items or moving item 12 to the second position and shifting everything down?”
    “We should do the latter!”
    “But the former motion was proposed first!”
    “All in favor, raise your hands.”
    “But what are we voting on?”
    – My memory of some of the procedural mishaps during the meeting

    I wish I’d captured the exact dialogue, but you get the gist. At this point, I couldn’t tell if board member were raising their hands to vote or throwing up their hands in exasperation. The most heated parts of the night were fueled by a lack of understanding or clear adherence to the process. I did Model UN in high school, so I’m familiar with parliamentary procedure, but I still can’t tell you if this board meeting was following (or attempting to follow) that set of rules or another. I also haven’t been able to find any information about meeting procedures on my Community Board’s website.

    Another tense moment came when the board was about to decide to deny a business’s request to change their license to include outdoor seating and music, because the business owner hadn’t attended the “pre-meeting,” thirty minutes before the full board meeting. The business owner was in the audience by this point and made himself known; apparently, he had not known about the “pre-meeting.” It seemed like an honest mistake, especially if you saw how the agenda was laid out. The pre-meeting info and agenda was in the same document as the main agenda, but it was at the end of the agenda, not at the beginning as the prefix “pre” would suggest. The board ultimately denied the business owner’s request, after an argument in which some of the board members sided with the business. I understand both sides here, and I can’t help but think the confusion could’ve been mitigated by better information design and education for both the public and the board about how the meetings are run and why.

    Like with links, I’m generally a proponent of well-established, well-designed protocols, but we can’t have rules of engagement and not explain them to anyone. When we do explain, the information should be clear, accessible (including multilingual), and discoverable.

    3. “Our priorities should reflect our values.”

    – Sheldon Fine, board member

    I don’t have a better section heading than that quote itself, which was one of the most inspiring and validating moments of the night. It came during the discussion on 2020 fiscal priorities, and the proposed priority list originally had repairing the UWS kayak dock as the second highest priority. Many board members felt this placement didn’t represent the entire community’s needs, and it became clear that the board members, including the chairperson, didn’t feel they had had the opportunity to review and give input on the suggested priorities before that night.

    After some heated debate, much of which was over procedure (see above) rather than the topic itself, the board finally voted to move the kayak dock repair item down in priorities and move the refurbishment of the Frederick Douglass playground up in the list. Listening to this self-admittedly mostly white community board not only address disparities within their own community, including acknowledging the need to advocate for the residents who are don’t attend these meetings and are not appointed to the board, but also take action on those disparities, was awesome and worth every minute of those 3 hours I spent in that basement.5

    What’s next

    I wanted to talk about this recent experience because it illustrates how so much of the work to be done isn’t technological. It’s about community education and outreach, information design, and clear and understandable processes. It’s about focusing on community values and, ultimately, people. In future posts I’m going to dive more into open data and standards, tech policy, digital infrastructure, and civic-focused software – and while those things are important, they’re only one layer of the stack.

    1 Then again, I know nothing about you, internet.
    2 BetaNYC published a report about the community boards’ technology needs. I encourage you to check it out and see what might be helpful for your own local governments. But also, notice how so much of what's identified isn't about advanced technology. Needs include lots of training, faster WiFi at meeting locations, adequate temperature control in offices (!), basic email software, and modern computer setups.
    3 Seriously, attending one can be like watching a mashup of the Great British Bake-off, C-Span, and your high school yearbook committee meeting. It makes you feel good, gives you insight into the civic process and your community, and reminds you that we’re really all overgrown children trying to figure out how to play nice with each other.
    4 In other words, I want more links. Those of you who know me know that I love links. Link all the things, please.
    5 Full board meeting minutes are available here.
  2. The First Lesson of Civic Hacking

    Atlanta: Training ground of Outkast, boaster of the 10th largest GDP in the nation,1 early bastion of hipster coffee shops in the South, and eccentric, concrete star of the eponymous FX show made by Donald Glover. Also: where I joined a Code for America brigade for the first time.

    I won’t go into the reasons I went to that city, but I will share what I learned.

    In 2014, and still to this day, the brigade was under the fine co-leadership of Luigi Ray-Montanez and other wonderful folks, and it hosted dozens of people, high energy, and free pizza.2 On my first night, I joined a project in partnership with the the city and the Atlanta Community Food Bank: we wanted to map food deserts using business records from the city.

    That project could be the foundation for more innovation, such as overlaying data from Google or other sources to better understand the areas, or building a canvassing tool to empower folks to add data about those areas, including what fresh food was available at businesses or locations not traditionally categorized as grocery stores (e.g. convenience stores or street vendors). Maybe we could even add food price or spending data to the map, hopefully with findings that could convince major grocery chains that moving into one of these food deserts would not only better serve those communities but be profitable.

    The first thing I learned was what a food desert is. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which, coincidentally, is headquartered in Atlanta, defines food deserts thus:

    Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.3

    The second thing I learned was what a food bank is. It’s not a place where people in need go to get food; it’s the distributor of food to those places. The Atlanta Community Food Bank works with over 600 non-profits in the region to serve over 755,000 people in need.

    The third thing I learned was how the city was involved. A staff member had volunteered to spend an evening every week with us to share data and answer questions. I’m guessing the city already had some sort of relationship with the food bank (probably financial), but, as I’ve witnessed in other cities since then, it appeared to take the Code for Atlanta group to convene them on this extracurricular, data-centered project. I learned that city staff really do care about the city, enough so to volunteer time outside of work to try new ways of doing things, and I also learned about the city’s status quo of sharing data:

    Local Government API

    But more on the technology in a later post. In fact, it should tell you something that the first things I learned on my first brigade project weren’t really about technology at all. My first real lesson in civic hacking was that I still had a lot to learn about my community and how it worked.

    My introduction to civic hacking was actually an introduction to my city.

    I didn’t know anything about food systems in my own community before that night, and I didn’t know about the infrastructure (government, nonprofit, or otherwise) that supported it. I also started to realize how much I still didn’t know.

    Now I wonder, how would I have learned these new things if I hadn’t shown up that weeknight after work? One could argue that the best infrastructure is infrastructure you don’t ever think about: you only think about roads when you drive over a pothole. There may be some truth to the value of unobtrusive, practically invisible public infrastructure, but we also need infrastructure that people are aware of, understand the fundamental mechanics of, and are engaged in. How can we make basic information about our local governments and our communities as common knowledge as the day your trash gets picked up?

    In my next post, I’ll dive into a recent experience in my NYC neighborhood and explore some ideas for improving community education. Until then, I’d love to hear about your first introduction to your city. How did you start to learn how your community works? Tweet at me.

    1 According to this report.
    2 Full disclosure: one of the reasons I got into tech at all was the abundance of free food at meetups. It feels weird to say that given the topic of this post.
    3 Quoted from their website. Want to learn more about access to food in your area? Check out the Food Atlas. I also want to note here that I've been learning more about the debate around the term "food desert", versus other terms like "food apartheid" which more explicitly convey the intentionality of systematic food scarcity, but this post isn't the best place to explore that.
  3. Launching Civic Unrest

    When you quit your job and launch your passion project, how do you begin? With a flare for the dramatic, of course:

    At long last, {CIVIC:UNREST} has raised its scaly head from the ashes of an empire where it has been developing like a fire-breathing fetus in the amniotic fluid of civic technology.

    Scratch that.

    {CIVIC:UNREST} shakes itself from the jowls of the earth like a shining obelisk after a decade of tremors and quakes that is the civic hacktivism movement.

    Geez. I’ve been reading too much N.K. Jemisin. Let’s try this again:

    After 7 years in civic technology, from collaborating with volunteer groups, Code for America brigades, and local governments, to working in the private sector for “social entrepreneurship” start-ups, I’m launching {CIVIC:UNREST}:1 the place for all my musings, studies, observations, and, most importantly, questions about the civic tech movement.

    That intro is much less riveting in terms of adventure and sci-fi realms, but I’m serious when I say this stuff is shaking me – and this whole “civic tech” thing keeps me in its grasp no matter how much I pursue other endeavors.2 As the years and the things I think I know increase, so do my questions: they multiply and clamber on top of one another like hamsters in a kindergarten classroom’s cage. I don’t know if I’m one of the hamsters or one of the five-year-olds poking and prodding them. I’m definitely not the teacher, although I know enough teachers by now to understand that they don’t have more answers than the rest of us – teachers are there to help us ask the right questions.

    {CIVIC:UNREST} is my attempt to ask those questions.

    In these pixelated pages, I will document and observe, seek clarity and, if possible, truth, and try to understand and amplify the sounds, syllables, and shapes of the civic tech movement and its communities across the globe.3

    My work will be guided by the following pair of questions:

    • What is the role of technology in public infrastructure?

    • What is the role of public infrastructure in technology?

    I checked Merriam-Webster for definitions, but I’m not going to use them. To be clear, by “technology” I mean things to do with computers: software, hardware, data,4 “smart” devices, etc. By “public infrastructure,” I mean policies, systems, structures, and governments that communities create and own themselves. By “policies,” I mean legislation, management, or processes. I hope my definitions aren’t too fuzzy; I will refine as needed as I learn more.

    Alright – now, to get to work. Interested in following along? Check back here, or follow my lovely new Twitter handle,5 or subscribe to email updates below.

    1 Yes, I’m going to write it like this until it feels too tedious to do so!
    2 Such as playing the accordion. I haven’t progressed past "Row, row, row your boat."
    3 Admittedly, I will likely give more attention to happenings closer to me. Lucky for you, internet, I change locations often.
    4 I realize you don’t need computers for data, but come on, you know what I mean.
    5 Not to be confused with this cool kid. Remember the underscore!