CELaunchpad Pt.1: Ordinary Power, Collaboration, and Choosing a Project

With encouragement from my peeps in Chingu, I’ve decided to blog about my experience as I participate in Code for Philly’s Civic Engagement Launchpad. Hope you find some enjoyment in it!

The Chief Service Officer of Philadelphia is speaking to a room of 35 individuals about the influence volunteers can have in shaping their local communities. She wants us all to understand that the projects we set out to build could have real and meaningful impact on Philly. She explains that the secret behind civic engagement is simple: it is to realize the power of the average citizen. She wants more people to realize and embrace that we all possess some skill, trait, or passion that we can harness to bring about the improvements we wish to see in government, both on the local and national level.

Our mission at this Code for Philly “hackathon” is to leverage technology in the hopes of awakening that power in as many citizens as possible so that they might work towards making the city more brotherly and more lovely.

This event is not a hackathon in the traditional sense of the term since we are not going to be spending 48 hours living and breathing code. Instead, we will spend the entire day today working together, but then continue our project for a month’s time culminating in a demo night.

Our day began with the awkwardly silent elevator ride with one another up to the event space, where we signed-in and slapped on our name tags. The Launchpad required a modest entry fee, but in return we got breakfast, lunch, and even dinner if necessary. Plus, snazzy red t-shirts! (possibly my favorite article of clothing? If not, then in the top 3 for sure.)

While munching on a rainbow bagel slathered in cream cheese and strawberry jam, I make some small talk with my fellow peeps. One guy is a freelance web developer with a Tennessee twang to his voice. The person to my left is reserved, and quietly explains to me a couple of the projects he’s interested in working on. One of which involves gerrymandering, a political tactic that I demonstrate a supreme lack of knowledge about when I say, “oh…is that the thing when they block voting?” Fortunately, Shy Guy and Tennessee Guy don’t judge me for my ignorance, and instead give me the scoop on gerrymandering.

It isn’t a simple subject, but my basic understanding is that states are carved up into voting districts, and after every census, these voting district lines are redrawn. To help ensure that a given party secures a certain number of seats in the House of Representatives, these lines are drawn such that a given party can heavily influence (if not determine) election outcomes for these seats. Suffice it to say, it’d be great if the population at large understood that this practice is going on and hold politicians and legislators more accountable for it.

Shy Guy and Tennessee Guy got me pretty interested in the topic, so when it comes time to pick projects, this one is top on my list.

After breakfast, Stephanie, the Chief Service Officer, gives her talk and then Aaron, another city employee, has us do a quick exercise. He tells us to pair up, place our elbows on the table, and clasp hands with our partner. He tells us to play a game. Without talking, with our elbows on the table and hands clasped together, try and get the other person’s hand to touch the table. The goal is to get as many points as possible (this game may sound familiar to you).

I am paired up with Shy Guy, and the game begins. True to my competitive spirit, I am ready to muscle his hand down to the table, and obtain as many points as possible. Shy Guy’s hand, however, is completely slack. I look at him quizzically, but proceed to bring the back of his hand down to the table in rapid (but gentle!) succession ten times. I figure one of us may as well have points, right?

The game ends, and Aaron does a quick survey of how people did. Roughly half the people scored zero points, and the other half scored 1 or more points. One team, however, reported they had both scored 10 points. They explained that rather than muscling against one another to get each other’s hand to hit the table, they simply took turns alternating whose hand would fall to the table. I then realize too late that this is the strategy Shy Guy was trying to utilize with me -_- #competitive-nature-not-for-the-win

Upon hearing this team’s approach, Aaron makes his points about team efforts. First, we must make sure every team member is clear with the goals of the project, and every one must monitor their assumptions about how to achieve these goals. In the exercise, many of us assumed we were supposed to arm-wrestle, competing for points, but in fact we could still achieve the objective of getting points while also being collaborative. Which leads to Aaron’s second point about the importance of compromise and collaboration. Keeping an open mind, hearing people out, ensuring clear and transparent communication. These are all things that lead to a successful team effort.

Aaron finishes up, and it is time to pick projects. The project ideas are written in marker on large pieces of paper around the room, and everyone mills around talking with one another about their thoughts on the projects (potential solutions, scope of project, impact of a project, etc…) and we also introduce ourselves, letting people know what skills we could offer to the team.

There are 8 of us currently hovering around the anti-gerrymandering project area. Aaron is also present, explaining the potential usefulness of the project. He does a good job at pitching us the project, and a few of the team members seem pretty knowledgeable about gerrymandering (Tennessee Guy included). I also get the sense from another potential team member that she will do a good job at keeping us organized and moving forward with the project. With all that said, I commit to this project.

With the teams firming up, it is time to work with another city team who work for the Office of Innovation and Technology. They plan on helping us with the design phase of our projects. In many hackathons (at least I suspect, I’ve only been in one other mini-hackathon), the design phase of a project is sorta thrown by the wayside because of the time constraints. Because we have a month, taking time to work out higher-level design questions like the scope of our projects, who our target audiences will be, what is achievable in a month’s time, what actionable results do we want to see from the use of our projects, what kinds of solutions do we want to create with these projects, etc…will be valuable in maximizing our ability to build a meaningful project.

Having said all these benefits of the design phase of a project, I thought by the end of day, our team might be in the coding-related/building portion of the project. Turns out we unintentionally spent close to six hours in the design phase X )

But I hear medium posts are best capped in the 5–8 minute range, so I’ll talk about the rest of the day next post. Till then!