Uniquely Different: How we make civic tech “work” in our small city

August 18th marked the fifth year Code for Asheville has participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking. Members of the Asheville community showed up to learn how to request public records, perform data analysis, and navigate the City of Asheville’s organizational structure to find answers to their questions. As local business owners and volunteers, we attended National Day of Civic Hacking in a few different capacities this year: as a sponsor, as Brigade members, and now as Code for America Community Fellows. In years past, we would spend the duration of the event building what might become the next big civic tech app. Now we play more of a facilitator role, leading sessions and helping people get comfortable with the principles of civic technology. Most attendees did not know how to code, and those who did played the role of instructor — sharing knowledge, encouraging participation, even filming. No minimum viable products were presented, and no prizes were won; but we all left with a few additional resources for using technology to make a difference, and a better understanding of how we can do it.

No Coding Required: At Code for Asheville Hackathons, the main focus is often teaching the community how to navigate City resources to find answers to their questions — like making public records requests.

Code for Asheville moved away from the traditional model of the hackathon a few years ago. Not because it wasn’t fun or didn’t produce cool ideas, but because that model wasn’t actually helping our community. As developers, our first inclination was to build a technological solution; but over time, we found the needs of our community were often too immediate and too varied to be made into a pre-packaged digital product. This shift in approach was challenging at first — why would we even do civic tech if we weren’t building cool tech? But as we worked more and more with non-technical groups who did meaningful advocacy work, we learned that we could be supportive partners in a variety of ways.

This shift in approach was challenging at first — why would we even do civic tech if we weren’t building cool tech?

Since then, we have submitted public records requests, analyzed public data, spoken before City committees and Council, petitioned, demonstrated, and worked with members of City staff alongside our partnering organizations. After a while, we stopped asking why we couldn’t build more civic technology and started wondering why there wasn’t more of what we were doing in the civic tech movement at large.

Code for Asheville Volunteers repair computers that were later donated to homeless advocacy organization BeLoved.

As 2018 Community Fellows, we are operating around the concept that the things we do well as Brigade members — using data for advocacy as well as working effectively with policymakers and government staff — is a model that can empower the greater community. Our National Day of Civic Hacking presentation, “Public Data Analysis for Non-Analysts: How to Think and Talk Like a Public Data Nerd” emphasized simple principles like finding answers to your questions by contacting government staff, using the City’s Open Data Portal, or submitting public record requests. While knowledge of government org charts and state statutes may not be glamorous, we’ve found that these are important tools for community members to participate effectively in the data-driven discussions that are a core concept of 21st century government.

After a while, we stopped asking why we couldn’t build more civic technology and started wondering why there wasn’t more of what we were doing in the civic tech movement at large.

With the Fellowship, we have an opportunity to refocus on some of the more time-intensive technical concepts that we, at times, cannot build solely on a volunteer basis. While our fellowship project, The State of Black Asheville, does incorporate some exciting functionality to make it engaging and impactful, we ultimately chose to work on this project because of its wide community support and the serious need for statistical information on racial disparities in our city. The website and analysis was founded by Dr. Dwight Mullen over 10 years ago as an undergraduate research project at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. The State of Black Asheville was already making a difference, so our goal is to use technology to amplify its effect.

We still feel our greatest contributions in civic technology are made outside of code. For this reason, we believe a “Code for” Brigade can do meaningful work in any city, even with few development resources. As a smaller Brigade, we sometimes envy the larger groups for their technical capabilities and financial resources, but a small city is a great place to try new ideas, and we feel our city is a good fit for this approach. We’ve had to redefine how we measure our successes, but in doing so we’ve built a more inclusive and effective brigade. At events like National Day of Civic Hacking, we may not always build the next big civic tech app, but we now walk away with actionable understanding of how we as community members can make a difference.

With thanks to my Community Fellowship partner Patrick Conant for his great ideas and editing help on this post.