There is a civic hacker in you! He or she is in there…I promise! Today, technology has evolved into a perfect storm of open source tools, code, social networks and lots of data. Civic Technologists thrive on all of these getting together with like-minded hackers and turning all these sources into useful applications, websites and visualizations.
Regardless of your level of technical skill, you can still contribute to the civic tech movement. Are you a policy wonk? We need you to draft open data legislation and executive orders. Maybe you’re a graphic designer. We could use some of your UX skill on our hacks. Is your focus on storytelling or social media? We need you to make our outreach successful; to tell the amazing stories happening in the civic technology world. If you fancy yourself a techie some are GIS people, some are front-end web developers. Some are full-on software engineers. We’ve got data scientists and we have devops stitching it all together. Whatever your skillset, we’ve got a niche for you.
I bet you’ve already got some “there should be an app for that” ideas in your head. Whether it has to do with your job or trash pickup at home, maybe you think your polling place could work better. Do you have ideas about commuter rail or mass transit. Is there a neighborhood watch where you live? You already know how you’d make it better with technology.
One of the great things is whatever civic issue you’re interested in it’s almost guaranteed there are people in your community doing something similar already. Whether it’s scraping data, FOILing information, mapping things, doing analysis, writing apps or just brainstorming like crazy. The civic tech world is full of journalists, academics, researchers, community groups, activists, students and planners. We touch all sectors of government – transportation, health, housing, public safety, land use, taxation, environmental protection, recreation, quality of life, education… civic hackers in our area are engaged with local government and communities to bring efficiency, clarity, and sunlight to these pressing issues, one hack at a time.
Now that I’ve got more fired up on how to engage civically, let’s revisit the tech piece. In 2015, if you still think you can’t write code, let me google that for you. You don’t need to be a software engineer or a professional web developer to start hacking. Whatever you want to do, someone out there has done a lot of the work for you and shared their code on Github. Whatever you want to make, there is a YouTube tutorial that will show how someone else has done something similar. Someone has asked the same questions you have on StackExchange, and more experienced programmers have answered those questions and provided code snippets. If you want to learn coding, start coding. You won’t be a pro overnight, but each success opens new doors for you.
Whatever you do, don’t be shy about sharing it. Be a self-promoter. Let the world know that you’re scraping the school districts website or created a website that maps what every legislator has voted for and against. Blog about it, tweet it, post it on Facebook. Share your code, your data and your technique on Github. Blog about your successes, your challenges and your setbacks. You’ll be surprised who speaks up and offers help. Share your project and you’ll be surprised who’s been lurking for months thinking they were the only ones who cared about the same thing. Connections will be made, networks will form, and community will grow.
This community is amazing, in whichever form it takes. I popped my head to see what it was about and before long, they had me out of my comfort zone – making interactive web apps, programming on a daily basis and giving an insider’s perspective on how government works. It’s helped me as a person and helped make me a better employee.
Our local event, CityCampNC, connects civic hackers from all over North Carolina. As part of Code for America’s Brigade program, we represent North Carolina in a global network of of grass-roots civic tech groups, all contributing stories and lessons. Community, at every level, is our strength.
There’s a civic hacker in you… join us today and get involved!