7 years of civic tech in the Triangle

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The civic tech and open government scene in the Triangle is alive and vibrant. The intersection of citizens, elected officials, and civil servants collaborating on solutions to solve community problems is creating a high level of engagement. This engagement is creating new opportunities and having a positive impact for the entire community (and beyond). But how did all this open government acceleration begin and why are people so interested in getting involved? Let’s take a look back at the last seven years and how an unconference format called CityCamp came to Raleigh, NC and what the future of civic tech looks like for our communities.

History of CityCamp

CityCamp was founded by Kevin Curry and Jen Pahlka, and the first CityCamp was held in Chicago on January 23-24, 2010. Afterwards, in an effort to inspire cities around the world to start their own CityCamp, the brand was opened for re-use by anyone. (Source: CityCamp Playbook)

This was a citizen revolution of sorts that helped to jumpstart the open government movement, known then and sometimes still referred to as gov 2.0. Of course, since the first CityCamp, open data has become a major part of the open government movement and continues to evolve.

While I did not attend the first CityCamp, I’ve come to know booth Jen and Kevin very well. One of the big reasons CityCamp was essentially open sourced, was because people were so excited about the first event, they wanted Jen and Kevin to come to their city and organize a CityCamp event. Jen was about to launch Code for America and Kevin had his own company to run. Instead of running everyone’s events, they asked for help to document what a successful CityCamp should accomplish and made the playbook for others to follow and put it under a Creative Commons license.

To my knowledge, the first CityCamp in Chicago was the only nationwide CityCamp in the United States. While there have been hundreds of CityCamp’s held around the world the closest thing we’ve had to a national gathering is Transparency Camp and the Code for America Summit. Although, the first Code for America Brigade Congress is happening this October 13-15 in Philadelphia, PA and will have an unconference format and have a national presence. Looks like the band is getting back together.

How CityCamp came to Raleigh

It all started with a conversation on Twitter between myself and Raleigh City Councilor Bonner Gaylord. Inspired by a successful pilot of SeeClickFix in District E, Councilor Gaylord was looking for more ways to improve citizen engagement. Basically, Bonner saw that CityCamp’s were happening at other cities across the country, liked the format and outcomes, and thought we should do one in Raleigh to foster citizen engagement. I was immediately onboard, and so were 10 other passionate volunteers who eventually became the planning team for the first CityCamp Raleigh.

The volunteer team of citizens started to meet weekly at Helios Cafe to start the planning process. We were actually able to o raise enough money (about $10k), secure venues,  and get speakers for the event in a 12-week period. The first CityCamp in Raleigh was a huge success. The organizers were agile, scrappy, and together, had a lot of experience for almost everything we needed to host a successful CityCamp to drive engagement from both the citizen and government side.

Rebranding as CityCamp NC

After two years of running CityCamp Raleigh the planning team, which become Code for Raleigh in October of 2012, had a tough decision to make. Continue on as CityCamp Raleigh or rebrand as CityCamp Triangle or CityCamp NC.

Rebranding was going to happen based on two years of successful events and outcomes. The big question was to expand regionally and focus on the Triangle or go big and focus on a statewide approach. Seeing other brigades form in NC and reading stories coming from other parts of the state, Charlotte and Asheville in particular, it made sense to go for a statewide approach and avoid rebranding again in 2-3 years. Looking back as this decision, we think it was the right one.

The grand vision for CityCamp NC is to be a gathering of all the North Carolina Code for America brigades, which currently includes: Asheville, Cary, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, and Raleigh. The event has multiple goals: highlight different projects each brigade works on, collaborate on projects and ideas, and discuss the major issues we are facing and work on solutions to solve them. The big idea is that we strengthen our collective civic hacking movement when we work together.

A partnership with NC DataPalooza

In late 2015 at the NC DataPalooza finale, I started talking with NC DataPalooza chair Zach Ambrose about a potential partnership between CityCamp NC and NC DataPalooza. There was already some overlap in the people on the planning committees and we recognized that having teams compete in the open data competition from May to September was too long of a period. We looked at the benefits of a partnership and decided to go for it.

In 2016, the planning teams from CityCamp NC and NC DataPalooza launched a minimum viable product (MVP) called NC Open Pass. It combined all of our events, Open Data Day, National Day of Civic Hacking, CityCamp NC, and NC DataPalooza, into a single ticket. The NC DataJam event would now be part of the CityCamp NC hackathon and the competitive prize money from CityCamp NC would go through NC DataPalooza.

In addition to partnering and combining events, we moved our events to the fall and shortened the period for the open data competition to begin in late September and conclude in early November–giving teams 6-8 weeks to work on their projects.

We also partnered with All Things Open to have team pitches for NC DataPalooza happen during the event at the Raleigh Convention Center. This pitch session at All Things Open would then determine the three teams who will compete at the NC DataPalooza finale in November.

The 7th CityCamp hosted by Code for Raleigh

And here we are, in 2017. Six years after the first CityCamp Raleigh was held. Volunteers are eagerly planning the fall event series for NC Open Pass. While it’s only the fifth CityCamp NC, it’s the seventh CityCamp event that Code for Raleigh has planned. By the way, the partnership between CityCamp NC and NC DataPalooza was strengthened in 2017 when the planning teams joined forces.

We’ve come a long way from 2011. We’ve seen open data portals launched in six municipalities around the Triangle including Raleigh, Cary, Wake County, City and County of Durham, Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest. Other open data portals from around the state include Asheville, Charlotte, and Greensboro.

And the NC Open Pass event series is shaping up to be another year you don’t want to miss. Mark your calendars with these important dates for the fall of 2017:

  • CityCamp NC, September 28-30, 2017
  • NC DataPalooza, November 13, 2017

The Future of Civic Hacking

My absolute favorite outcome of these events is getting citizens talking with civil servants. That is the magic–connecting people together around topics they are deeply passionate about. And this year will be no different. While we will continue with the unconference format, we are trying something new this year.

In February, Code for Raleigh leadership met with the Wake County Innovation Team to review the 75 priorities designated by Wake County Commissioners. Through a collaborative process, we made a short list, then found stakeholders for a few of the priorities where we thought Code for Raleigh could help. The three projects we are preparing in partnership with Wake County for the fall event series are:

  • Parks and Rec park finder – an app to find all the parks and greenways across the Triangle, including programs and amenities in all municipalities
  • Not just a flu-shot finder – an app where you can search where to get flu shots and expand the capabilities to include other health-related needs such as finding narcan and prescription drop-off locations
  • Business development diversity accelerator – looking at ways to help minority and underrepresented people turn their business ideas into actual businesses by providing resources to streamline the business-creation process

This is an exciting partnership between citizens and government. We are working collaboratively, solving problems together for our community. We plan on using the NC Open Pass events to build teams to supplement the work needed to accomplish these projects. Essentially, we are building a citizen-government planned project sprint to help engage citizens to chip in and advance each of these projects.

I think it’s awesome that the Wake County Innovation Team views the event series we’ve established under NC Open Pass as a way to get direct citizen feedback, participation, and involvement. This is how we make civic tech projects sustainable. And these partnerships are key. Being partners with the City of Raleigh, Wake County, and many others is what makes our civic tech community vibrant and exciting. This is the future of civic hacking, and we’ve only just begun.

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