Stop Waiting for Permission

How civic hacking changed the way I saw my city — and myself

“The world isn't run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons.”
—Sneakers (1992)

Philadelphia was one of the first cities to host Code for America Fellows—men and women spending a year of their lives dedicated to finding ways to leverage technology and open data to improve government—in 2011.

That year, I vividly remember watching one of those Fellows, Peter Fecteau, talk about civic hacking at my first Ignite Philly and thinking, I want to do that. I want to help.

But there was one big problem: I didn’t know how to code. I mean, I knew as much HTML/CSS as the next marketer — enough to build email templates. But I wasn’t a programmer or developer, and I certainly wasn’t a hacker.

SDP Budget Visualization, May 2014

Three years later, concerned about the dire straits faced by the education system in Philadelphia, I showed up at an EdTech hackathon. By this time, we had an active local Code for America “Brigade,” Code for Philly, who sponsored the event. I worked as a designer on a dynamic d3 chart with my teammate, a developer that happened to be one of the Brigade’s co-captains. With his encouragement, I dug into my rusty CSS skills, and together we built a visualization of the Philadelphia School District’s newly-released budget data. I was hooked. I joined Code for Philly the following week, and started poring over every available set of open data we had.

It Started with a Map

I’d search once a year, at least, usually while apartment hunting. What are the parking rules on this street? Most often, I was looking for a map of residential parking permit zones. Google Trends said I wasn’t alone, but I couldn’t find so much as a jpeg. Nada.

Just do it yourself. Now.

I’d never made a map before. Buried in more search results, I discovered the text of the city code that defined the district boundaries. And then I found Mapbox, which changed everything. I could essentially take a crayon and draw the outlines of these districts on a base map that wasn’t covered in terribly-aliased text. It was beautiful on mobile, even retina devices.

For the first time, I used a JavaScript library to add functions like geolocation and search. I quickly looked up a few guides to responsive design (at least to make it useable on smaller screens) and threw it all on a webpage, with some analytics for good measure.

I finished around 3am on Friday, June 20. That morning, I tweeted a link to the map:

An hour later I found myself on the phone with a reporter for Philly, a local technology blog. The map was front page news that afternoon.

Over the next few days, the map got over 17,000 views.

When the Philadelphia Parking Authority called to discuss my map on Monday, I spilled coffee all over my desk. They were notably curious. What are hackathons? How does open data work? Who’s behind civic hacking? (The word “hacking” still makes some folks nervous, I learned). I suggested we arrange a meeting with the city’s chief data officer, who regularly attends Code for Philly meetups.

I spent the summer, often late into the night, learning about map tiles, database theory, JavaScript and data visualization. I was invited to attend the Code for America Summit in San Francisco, as a core Brigade member. Before I left, I found out there would be a position opening soon in the City of Philadelphia’s Open Data Office. I laughed when someone asked if I was interested—I’d honestly never considered working for the government in my life. But on that flight to California, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

At the Summit, we had just attended a brilliant session on using iterative, data-driven design to improve government websites, when I unknowingly struck up a conversation with Susan Crawford. Somehow, my trepidation about government work came up, and her response was immediate:

“You should do it. You just have to remain cheerful.”

A Code for Philly meetup in the City of Philadelphia’s Innovation Lab. photo: Chris Alfano

In Coatesville, PA, where I grew up, if you had a problem with the way something was done, you either rolled up your sleeves to help, or kept your mouth closed. Put up or shut up. So I am: next month I’ll be joining a team of people working on open data for the City of Philadelphia. More departments are opening their data stores every month, including—I’m happy to say—the Parking Authority.

I’ve had several unwavering champions along the way. Far more talented and experienced individuals than I have worked hard just getting this train on the tracks. And that first class of Fellows, from back in 2011? Now I’ll be working with one of them.

I suppose it’s as close as I’ll ever get to permission.

Find a Code for America Brigade near you, or help remotely using the Civic Tech Issue Finder. What are you waiting for?

web analytics junkie | fan of open data & maps | surf, weightlifting, bjj

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