Building the civic tech engine while we fuel it

A tale of will, imposter syndrome and unlikely odds

Grace O'Hara
Dec 20, 2018 · 8 min read

Let’s start this story here.

Photo by Aleksandra Kamińska (from ePaństwo)

There we were. Twenty plus people from around the world, trying to ignore our lack of sleep and the sun-drenched Bucharest outside. We had a mission, and we were going to see it through.

That mission: use the four hours we had together as wisely as we could, to map out the course of Code for All’s future.

No biggie, right?

Myself and fellow-instigator Krzysztof had a plan — one that involved plenty of post-it notes and flip charts, with a healthy dose of paper-scissor-rock — and it was going to be great.

At least, that’s what I told myself. Inside was a different story. What are you doing here, what is the talent you hold to be in this position of privilege right now? You don’t have experience charting the course of a global organisation, or years of knowledge shaped from working in civic tech. What do you have?

The answer to that… well, we’ll get to it.

Landing in Code for All

I joke that I fell into civic tech — that it’s never where I meant to end up. In retrospect though, it feels like where I was always supposed to be.

I spent years trying to jump ship from the startup world into the likes of Oxfam, only to find out it’s incredibly difficult without prior non-profit experience. Then, through a series of strange coincidences, I was introduced to Alvaro, a co-founder of Code for Australia. Less than a month later and I was a communications team of one for the tiny civic tech organisation.

About a year after that and it was Code for Australia’s turn to join Code for All’s executive committee — a governance mechanism that sees member organisations rotate in and out of decision making duties. Alvaro, was the obvious choice to fill the spot, but he was hesitant to join. My colleague, Lina, and I rallied to the call instead. Over time, Lina found herself drawn into more pressing needs on the home front in Australia (read: making sure all our teams were teaming through our Fellowships and almost single-handedly running our new Sandpit program) while I found more and more things that needed attention at Code for All.

Two months later, in April 2018, I had signed up to fill a gap in the Code for All team — helping to deliver a series of stories that documented the work that’d been happening unnoticed, as well as documenting the network itself. Over the course of a few months, I worked with writers from all over the world, helping put our collective impact into words. It was incredible, insightful and rewarding. But my evenings, weekends and lunchtimes had officially been taken over.

Fast forward a few more months and I’m a permanent (as permanent as you can be at an organisation running on short-term grants) member of the Code for All team. I’m helping to open our Scaling Civic Tech forum, MC our first day of the Code for All summit and figure our what the future of the network generally looks like. People are looking at me like I should have answers.

Internally, and sometimes in writing, I’m trying not to freak out.

The Pressure and The Privilege

I should be clear, I didn’t passively get sucked into Code for All. When my involvement first started picking up, Lina asked what it was about the work that appealed to me, how it was different to Code for Australia.

My answer came in three parts: the scale, the need and the opportunity.

  • The Scale: Code for All is a global network, with local partners on the ground in communities across twenty countries. If done right, the network can have an incredibly meaningful and effective ripple-effect, creating opportunities that leverage shared knowledge and vetted ideas.
  • The Need: I have my mum to thank for my early awareness of privilege, for helping me understand the forces that mean some have while others want. I’m incredibly grateful to have found myself at Code for Australia, working with projects that help vulnerable communities like those seeking legal aid, young parents and rural communities. When talking to our Code for counterparts around the world, however, the work happening elsewhere seems to feel more urgent — working to combat disinfomation and corruption, provide aid after a natural disasters or vocational (tech) training.
  • The Opportunity: I saw, and still see, so much potential in the network, in the rawness of the mass it had been building over time. We had community, we had proven impact through collaborations — we just needed human-power and that age-old gripe of dollars.

The combination of all of those things leads to the title of this section: pressure and privilege. I feel both most days. On bad days, I get a little too white girl wasted and let them my feelings on them break out of me.

What stops it from being everyday?

An incredible team, a supportive network or friends, colleagues and family, and a health dose of optimism.

The Team

This is me trying to cram celery into a backpack

Well there’s me.

If you’ve stuck through this article you’ll know a little about my civic tech journey. In the spare time I have, I’m usually found spending time with friends and family, near the beach, on a bike, hiking or learning to make sourdough. Like many I’ve met in the world of impact, we just can’t seem to stop at a day job either. So on the side, I’m trying to create an interesting new breed of children’s books. Chat to me anytime about any of the above.

Image source: Code for Romania Facebook

Then we have the incredible Krzysztof Madejski, who is part of the ePaństwo Foundation and who’s been carrying the network for the best part of the last two years. Along with Code for Romania’s Bogdan Ivanel, they worked tirelessly on finding funds, facilitating collaborations and exchanges, pulling off a global summit, and much, much more → One Year After Taipei (Report).

Krzysztof has an endless capacity for making new connections, for finding common ground between projects and organisations and for making sure we’re not just doing the right work, but doing work in the right way too. I’m infinitely grateful to be working beside such a person.

Image source: Code for Romania Facebook

And finally and most recently, Lailah, who’s part of Open Up (formerly Code for South Africa). Lailah will be joining Krzystof and myself on a regular basis in the new year, and as a self-confessed process fiend, we’re incredibly excited to have her expertise onboard. In the phone calls and brief chats we’ve had, I’ve been humbled by Lailah’s passion for helping others and creating “actionable knowledge” and can’t wait to dive into this together next year.

The Plan

Well, as the title says — and like any new organisation — we’re kind of building the engine as we fuel it.

One of the most valuable exercises we did in the few hours we had together in Bucharest was to do a team-wide retro, to get a pulse check on what were the main pain points and delightful things about being part of Code for All.

My worry that folks would be too polite to give feedback was unfounded.

This feedback has given us a solid understanding of how we as a tiny organisation can serve the needs of the network, and the civic tech community more broadly.

Along with quick fixes of setting up a recurring newsletter and addressing some monitoring of burnout, we’ve been doing some big picture thinking about framing our value, looking at which of our programs are delivering the most impact, curating information flows and looking at what gaps there are in the world of civic tech that we might be able to fill (looking at you, monitoring and evaluation).

All this is while we try and formalise Code for All as a legal entity (finally) and try and open up conversations with funders in this space — which is definitely a ‘who you know’ game.

We’re an organisation grounded in openness and so of course, if you have any comments, feedback or connections for us based on how we’re currently thinking and talking about Code for All, I’d love to hear from you.

Hey hey— we have a slide deck!

The End

Of the blog post. The rest is just the beginning.

I did promise I’d get back to where this story started, to what it is I have to bring to the equation of civic tech + Code for All.

The answer to that, I’m learning, is just as much as anyone else.

Civic tech prides itself on being an inclusive niche of tech, because it’s only through bringing together diverse perspectives that good, impactful things get made. I fell into Code for All, but like everyone else, I bring a perspective that is only my own to share.

The other thing I bring is again something everyone has to offer: a listening ear.

In recognising too that the position I’m in holds power — in the sense that Code for All has the opportunity to create real change in the lives of vulnerable communities around the world — I’m dedicated to listening to people, to their needs, to what’s working and what’s not.

You can find me on the Code for All Slack (@grace) or reach out via email (grace@codeforall.org)

It’s nothing new, but it’s the best I (or really anyone in this space) can offer: honesty, listening, and a healthy dose of optimism.

Code for All

Code for All is the largest civic tech network in the world, amplifying the impact of good ideas through a global network of local organisations.

Thanks to Krzysztof Madejski

Grace O'Hara

Written by

Storyteller at Code for Australia & Small Fires. Trying to figure this world out in between, sometimes with words, mostly with action.

Code for All

Code for All is the largest civic tech network in the world, amplifying the impact of good ideas through a global network of local organisations.

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