A high-zoom view of Savannah City Hall and its golden dome taken from The Westin Savannah Harbor, as well as the few multi-story buildings allowed to be constructed before the 1950s preservation movement halted the wrecking ball and prevented any taller structures from being built. Photo: Bruce Lean (CC) on Flickr.

Founding ‘Open Savannah’: An attempt to modernize a city that clings to its history

What I’ve learned in the three months since founding Open Savannah, a local brigade of Code for America

“For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large . . . Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.”

John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story.

About three months ago, I moved to Savannah, the perfectly-preserved, nearly 300-year-old midsize city on the Georgia coast about two hours north of where I grew up. I had left my job as an editor in Savannah four years ago and moved on to new opportunities in New York City, then St. Louis. But something inexplicable drew me back to Savannah — something I still can’t quite put my finger on. Along with taking on client work to pay the bills and moving back into the same room I’d rented before, I started Open Savannah, a local volunteer civic-tech organization part of the Code for America network.

At the time, I honestly didn’t expect significant enthusiasm from the local community for the Savannah brigade — at least without doing significant outreach on my part. We are, after all, a fairly small combined statistical metropolitan area of only roughly 460,000 people that’s well-known for its resistance to change, as described in the quotation above from John Berendt’s best-selling 1999 novel. Savannah, too, lacks the knowledge capital that comes with the presence of, say, a major public research university (the closest is 60 miles west) or a plethora of Fortune 500 companies (Gulfstream Aerospace is about it). Heck, for that matter, we don’t even have an Apple Store here

Nonetheless, late one evening I created a Meetup.com group called “Open Data Savannah” (since shortened to ‘Open Savannah’ in a nod to inclusivity, and in the acknowledgment that civic tech is about more than just data alone). I didn’t put much effort into it at first, creating a canned-looking logo in Sketch using a SVG icon stolen (legally!) from the The Noun Project and writing a half-baked group description in less than 10 minutes’ time. I didn’t even have the courage to invite anyone I knew to it. It would probably, I figured, just become one of the many projects I have a habit of starting but never finishing.

The next morning I woke to see that 17 people had joined the group overnight. Whoa! Clearly, I’d tapped into some sort of local community need or desire, however niche it might be. I connected with techSAV, a loosely-formed group of Savannah-area developers, designers and entrepreneurs, via their Slack team. We started talking about public data and the Open Government movement generally. I shared my personal frustrations at having attempted to get data from government agencies during my previous job as an editor in Savannah. Others who had dealt with the city or county in data requests largely echoed my sentiment. And, thus, Open Savannah was born.

The later, more polished-looking logo we went with after the group started growing at rapid speed and it became more than just an experiment.

We set our first event — a kickoff, ideation and brainstorming session— for Feb. 23rd at a new coworking space operated by The Creative Coast in the up-and-coming Starland District –– the subject of at least three New York Times profiles in the last few years.

Inclusivity will always trump ‘experience’

When we picked a date for the event in early January, the schedule for other city and community events was wide open that evening. Had we known members of the Savannah-Chatham Public School district would call a public forum to seek feedback on an issue as immensely important as the selection of a new school-system superintendent the very same night, we would have picked a different date. But because the public forum was largely only announced in the event feed of the school board’s legacy website and by word-of-mouth through educators and parents, I didn’t even find out until the day after the event via an article on savannahnow.com that there had even been another public forum taking place in town that night.

Given the ridiculously outsized role ‘crowd size’ has taken on recently in our national political discourse, some might (unfairly) look at the top photo from the school board’s public forum and write off the abysmal attendance level as yet another example of civic apathy. It’s hard not to look at the top photo without noticing the sea of empty pinkish-red polyester seats in the auditorium at Savannah High School.

ABOVE: The top slide contains a photograph from a public input forum on selecting a new school superintendent, while the bottom slide contains a shot taken the very same night at Open Savannah’s public forum.

But I don’t buy the civic apathy argument. Why? Well, for one, Open Savannah held a three-hour-long public forum on ways we could improve the city using technology and open data that very same night, and I witnessed the exact opposite of apathy embodied in the interest and attention of those who showed up. We had a packed crowd of, at last count, 56 attendees, with few empty seats and only a couple of boxes of leftover pizza. And, no, it wasn’t just your stereotypical cadre of well-to-do, tech-savvy, straight, white males with thick glasses and MacBooks –– the ‘geek’ archetype –– in attendance. It was neighborhood association presidents, community activists, college students from Savannah College of Art and Design, Armstrong Atlantic State University and Savannah State University, civic leaders of all races and genders and ages, professionals still dressed in their work attire, and even at least half a dozen civil servants from local government. We represented, in my mind, the entire Savannah community that night–– not just the tech community or the startup community or a particular niche geographic community.

As a testament to the diversity of the brigade, one elderly black lady I talked to after the event — who, in fact, was so interested in the discussion that she asked to borrow my print copy of Code for America’s book Beyond Transparency — later told me she couldn’t remember any other time she’d seen so many Savannah residents from vastly different walks of life gathered together in a single place speaking so passionately about civic issues in her entire life as a Savannahian. If we can get people her age with her level of knowledge of how entrenched the status quo can be (let’s not forget that she witnessed school desegregation and the local Civil Rights Movement) that excited about civic technology, then civic apathy clearly isn’t the problem. It’s civic engagement

What brought out so many people to our event but not to the school superintendent forum, which is undeniably more urgent? Maybe it was our heavy use of social media to spread the word about about the brigade event. Maybe it was our phone calls and face-t0-face meetings with local agencies and community organizations. Maybe it was our email blasts to a list of 60 or so subscribers. Maybe it was because we actively worked to communicate with residents from all neighborhoods on the platforms and mediums they already use––whether that be Facebook, Nextdoor, phone calls to neighborhood association leaders, Twitter or simple word-of-mouth.

Maybe, too, it was the Brigade’s aspirational message of improving the community by attempting something new that gave all residents a reason to attend and a hope that they might have their voices finally heard. As citizens, many of us have written off government as a lost-cause, especially in the communities most in need of solutions. We get frustrated with having to wait in line an hour downtown to pay our water bill by personal check. We get frustrated with race and class-fueled local politics of division. We grow weary of zoning laws that permit more and more hotels to go up in the Historic District as the cost of living for longtime residents meanwhile skyrockets. All of these are valid concerns and frustrations with government that make us feel compelled to surrender and stay home.

But staying home is an act of disempowerment, and creates a self-perpetuating cycle of distrust. The problem isn’t so much government itself or even, for that matter, an entrenched lack of civic interest. It’s a systemic two-way disconnect in communication between the golden-dome of City Hall and the neighborhoods we call home. It’s a matter of a broken and outdated view of public outreach, and a fragmented, redundant structure of city vs. county government. Until we bridge that gap, it’s going to remain difficult for local government to engage with citizens. Until we get ordinary residents to believe they can bring about real change to the system — until we feel empowered and connected as a single, united community–we’re not likely to expend much energy trying to participate in dialogue, especially dialogue

So, that’s the goal with our next Open Savannah event April 13th: To make brigade members feel empowered and included in a common mission. We’ll rely on basic data entry skills that will allow most anyone who can use a spreadsheet to help build something that matters. Our plan is to create a city-wide directory app via Google Sheets data based on CityBook.io that allows residents to get in touch with their nearest neighborhood association presidents (55 such neighborhood associations exist in Savannah), who serve as conduits between residents and City Hall. It’s simple and small, but useful nonetheless. It’s also something that everyone can contribute to and feel empowered in having made a small difference.

Join us, won’t you?