Impact Happens Outside of the Command Line

The following post is a condensed version of the closing speech I gave at Code for America’s inaugural Brigade Congress.

Over the last two days I’ve spoken to leaders from 38 cities across the US and Canada. I’ve heard from cities as large as LA and New York but also as small as Portland Maine and Newport Rhode Island. We’re represented by Brigades as old as five years and as young as eight weeks. The network is growing and we’re awakening something in people that drives them to improve their cities and their country.

This weekend we’ve had existential conversations and asked ourselves challenging questions. In one of our sessions Jim Van Fleet from Charlotte said, “Technical problems seldom outweigh the people problems” and it really resonated with me. Some of the largest challenges we face are not “how do I get this to compile” (though sometimes does feel like the biggest challenge for those who use my code). Our challenges lie in identifying how we can use our skills to have the most impact in our communities. As Michelle Lee said, “Impact happens outside of the command line.”

We’ve shared our successes, failures, and fears. We’ve asked hard questions like “how do we engage and create a more diverse community” and “how are we unintentionally excluding people from participating.”

Emma Burnett from Code for Maine turned on a light bulb in my head when she said they run not “hackathons” but “civic design fests”. Their thought was the term “hackathon” can be exclusionary because it implies a technical background is needed to participate. By using more inclusive language we can encourage others from outside the community to participate. As James Lott from Code for Philly said “It’s a civic movement, not a tech movement.” Who knows? Maybe next year we’ll be celebrating National Day of Civic Design. I love the idea of challenging how we’re operating and seeing where we can improve.

Sometimes we get caught up in the day to day grind of operating our Brigades we forget we’re part of a larger network and have other leaders facing the same challenges as us.

The power and potential of the Brigade network was really unlocked for me this September during Hurricane Irma. Code for America’s Christopher Whitaker reached out to the Florida Brigade networks and said “Hey, Sketch City in Houston told me they built this amazing tool for disaster response called HarveyNeeds.org and they deployed a version for Florida to use.” Houston rolled all of their energy from Harvey and put something together for Florida to use. Brigade leaders in Miami and Fort Lauderdale activated engineers and designers to build on top of the work while Orlando used a scheduled open hack night for data entry. Within a few days, irmaresponse.org was launched.

Think about what happened here. Sketch City built a tool to solve a problem they were facing. The same problem cropped up in Florida and they saw an opportunity. They reached out through Whitaker and made us aware someone solved a problem we were facing. Rather than building something from scratch we had the opportunity to adopt and build on top of an existing tool to meet our needs. We’re now discussing the possibility of leveraging the same tool for tornado response in Oklahoma. This would not have been possible without the Brigade network.

So as you’re taking your planes, trains, and automobiles back to your hometowns, remember the energy you felt in this building. Continue to drive your Brigades and keep your members engaged. Lead by example and push others in your Brigades to become leaders. Consider serving our network in the next National Advisory Council and bring to the table all the ways we can improve.

Remember there’s strength in numbers. Keep in touch with all those you met this weekend. Nurture those slack channels and keep them alive!

If you loved meeting in person be sure to come to Code for America Summit in Oakland from May 30th — June 2nd.

Continue the conversations you’ve had this weekend and pay attention to what problems other Brigades are facing and offer to help. By working together, the Code for America Brigade Network will be louder than the crack in the bell.

Thank you.

Andrew Kozlik is co-captain with Erin Denton of Code for Orlando and serves on the National Advisory Council.

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