Code for America welcomes the community to vote in the elections for Brigade national advisory…
Christopher Whitaker

Hacking the Brigade Program

In 2008 I moved wide-eyed and blind, 3,000 miles across this country. Ready to save the world from ourselves I signed on to a student position with the Bureau of Land Management. My assignment: six months of tent living and mapping plants in the Western Mojave Desert.

Fast forward three years and I’m getting hired because rumors are that this aspiring field botanist is quick to handle backlogs of data entry from years of field work past, and has a knack for fixing broken Microsoft Access 2000 JetSQL reports. My hours in the field became numbered, instead swapped for eight hour days on 10 year old iMacs with 1mb internet connections. Hey, in kindergarten we had a Macintosh Classic II in the classroom, by sixth grade we had to complete database admin coursework and build a website for science class, didn’t you?

I was disheartened, failing repeatedly on short seasonal jobs to convince supervisors to invest in upgrading computers or backing up decades worth of data stored on a single dying machine. Then, I began to see patterns. Job after job data we collected data using universally adopted methods , relevés, transects, — yet each agency managed outdated duplicative infrastructure.

Inspired by SaaS products taking the web by storm, I landed in Los Angeles in 2011, determined to go back to school and learn to develop my skills beyond the occasional VBA macro hacks. These guys needed shared infrastructure, and damnit I was going to build it.

It wasn’t long after the move and my dive into computer science classes I started interning with the City of Santa Monica’s IT department. Tasked with understanding the growing “open data” movement — I began scouring the internet, following employees of other cities on twitter, attending Hack for LA’s hackathons, and stumbled into the first Code for LA meetup in November 2012.

This is when I realized I’d found my home. These people valued efficiency, small iterative changes, and working not just hard but smart. Technology didn’t need to be difficult, it didn’t need to be expensive, we just needed the right tools in the right hands.

In 2015 — our small group of volunteers under the Hack for LA banner officially joined the Code for America brigade program. Since joining the program without a doubt the biggest benefit has been building relationships with volunteers and hackers in other brigades. So many of our cities face the same challenges — so much can be learned from our peers.

It’s been a privilege these last years working in civic tech. I’ve watched city after city publish data, hire Chief Data Officers, and build better digital services. In a world where reading the news is heart-wrenching, terrifying, and depressing; I’ve found a community of advocates that inspires me to keep building.

I’m running for the National Advisory Board because I’m ready to build a better brigade program, with our cities, and with each other. The civic tech community is growing up, and I’m committed to helping it get there by pushing for:

Building a Trust Committee to mediate conflict and enforce the Code of Conduct. Community organizing is hard, people are harder. We’ve had our challenges locally and nationally upholding our code of conduct. It’s time to go beyond simply requiring our members to read a Code of Conduct and build a framework to help us live it.

Increasing diversity and female leadership in the Brigade Network. We are stronger when our membership reflects the communities we come from. Our products are better when we build with the people who will use them. We need to examine our current practices and make changes that are welcoming to individuals who are diverse in age, gender, and race.

Publishing shared guidelines and resources for brigade projects and events. There’s so much more to brigades than software! Many of the tasks and skills required need better support. How-tos, guidelines, and best practice documentation for event planning, hack nights, marketing, grant writing, and fundraising would make us more effective. Prioritizing the development of these resources will help brigades of every size.

Supporting collaboration, not competition, between cities. Promise Zones, Homelessness Surveys, HUD Jobs Plus, Tech Hire, Police Open Data Initiative; so many of our cities are competing for the same federal grant dollars. Facilitating knowledge sharing, developing shared frameworks for measuring progress, let’s make it about not who gets the grant but how we can make our dollars go farther so more cities can be served by the same grants. In Detroit it’s high vacancy rates, in Los Angeles overcrowding. No matter your city’s metric for measuring, we’re all seeking to improve the quality of life in our most vulnerable geographies.

Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to vote by September 30th!