1. 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.
  2. 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!