City Scrapers Helps the Code-Curious Get Involved in Civic Tech

How City Bureau’s tech collective is building an inclusive community while helping to track local governance meetings in Chicago

By Rebecca Wei, Coding Community Organizer

The author (center) with City Bureau cofounders Andrea Hart and Darryl Holliday on a trip to Detroit to work on the Documenters program.

This January, we kicked off City Bureau’s City Scrapers Project, an open-source coding community that collects, standardizes and shares information on local public meetings (i.e., City Council, Police Board, Local School Councils, etc). We meet weekly to build web scrapers for the Documenters program in Chicago.

Our community includes journalists, freelancers, career-changers, experienced coders and more. We’re open to everyone, but we prioritize learning and leadership experiences for underrepresented individuals in tech and media. We want our community to be accessible and welcoming, especially to those who don’t feel they’ve been welcomed to tech spaces in the past.

As an East Asian woman, I have a complicated relationship with “being underrepresented in tech.” On one hand, there are five to seven times more Asian Americans than all other non-white workers at tech industry leaders like Google, Twitter and Facebook. On the other hand, Asian American women are among the least likely to be promoted to be executives. Acknowledging how systemic inequalities harm me motivates me to work for equity. Acknowledging how they benefit me helps me think beyond the have/have-not binary and build toward a community where everyone is empowered to learn at their own pace and make useful tech together.

In short, I believe the 1970s aboriginal activists in Queensland who said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

So what does creating an accessible learning community look like? Here are some things we’ve done:

  • Create learning opportunities for the code-curious: By creating bite-sized tasks that can be accomplished with only a GitHub account, we allow new coders to build their confidence as they learn one technology at a time. As a result, members of our community can contribute code while avoiding the lengthy and sometimes discouraging process of installing all the right software on their computers.
  • Meet to code in various neighborhoods: We’ve hosted open coding sessions in Woodlawn, Logan Square and the Loop. So far, 40 people have shown up to code with us or contributed code from afar, leading to more than 31 scrapers built and 1,524 commits logged as of May 2018.
  • Create an onboarding process centered on those new to code and open source: Not everyone learns best by reading text or tech jargon, so we’ve created video tutorials and beginner-friendly documentation for those working remotely. For those who come to in-person sessions, we help them either install the right software on their computers or set up a CodeAnywhere online coding account, depending on the person’s experience and interests.
The author (right) introduces volunteer coders in Detroit to the City Scrapers project.

These are our first steps, but we still have a ways to go. Excited to join our community? Come to one of our weekly-ish Open Coding Sessions — the next one is tonight, June 4, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Or, visit our GitHub to see open issues and contribute some code of your own — our community is open to coders and non-coders alike; and we’ve broken tasks down accordingly. See our “good first issue,” “help wanted” and “good first issue: non-coding” tags to dip your toes in. We have plenty of other tags prepared for those ready for a deeper dive.

Have ideas for how we could do better? Find us at cityscrapers@citybureau.org or message me directly on City Bureau’s Slack at @rebecca_wei.

Support the creation of inclusive communities like the City Scrapers project by becoming a City Bureau Press Club member today.