Lessons from building Code for Canada’s Civic Tech Toolkit

This is a guest post by Emily Kuzan and Isha Nepal, two of Code for Canada’s 2017 Jr. Research and Communications Analysts. Together, Emily and Isha developed the beta version of our new Civic Tech Toolkit.

Emily (left) and Isha share a laugh while planning Code for Canada’s new Civic Tech Toolkit.

On our first day at Code for Canada, we were greeted by welcoming faces, and a sea of colorful post-it notes.We were then asked to take those sticky notes and write down the skills we have, and the skills we want to develop. The staff at Code for Canada, including the Executive Director, Gabe, helped us match those skills and goals to some of the organization’s exciting projects.

That exercise led to us working on Code for Canada’s new Civic Tech Toolkit. The kit is a digital resource designed to help local organizers start, manage and sustain a civic tech community group in their city!

During our time with Code for Canada, we’ve seen firsthand the positive impact that civic tech can have. We hope the toolkit will empower aspiring organizers to use technology, design and data to make a meaningful difference in their cities!

Getting Started

When we were first assigned the task of creating the first draft of the toolkit, we didn’t know where to start — all we knew was that we had just eight weeks to finish!

Fortunately, Gabe and the rest of the Code for Canada crew gave us some great advice: start with users’ needs. We compiled a list of established and aspiring civic tech organizers in Canada, including ones in Toronto, Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo, and arranged to interview them.

Even though at times we felt like we were asking the same questions, the interviewees always responded with excitement, and they had different insights that helped guide our work. We also really honed our interviewing skills; at first, our notes were messy, and we would only realize afterwards that we neglected to write down a piece of key information. However, as time went on, we got better at summarizing data, and we’re proud of how many different perspective we were able to integrate into the toolkit!

Barriers to civic tech

One of the most valuable parts of working on the toolkit was learning about the various challenges that can impact civic tech organizers. While everyone we spoke to shared similar goals, we were surprised to learn how varied the obstacles they face are. Here’s a short summary of the challenges (and some solutions) we identified:

  • Attracting a diverse audience of tech and non-tech people. We know that diverse groups build better products, and one of the strengths of civic tech hacknights is that they can attract people who aren’t part of established tech circles. However, attracting and maintaining a diverse audience is still a challenge for civic tech groups. In Ottawa, for example, many public servants attend hacknights, but the city’s technology community is still under-represented. This challenge is not easy to overcome, but civic tech organizers found holding hacknights in downtown areas was the best way to reach a diverse audience.
  • Maintaining a food budget. In the grand scheme of civic tech, snacks might seem like a small thing, but food can be a powerful motivator to get people to attend or participate in an event. But unless that food is paid for by a community sponsor, civic tech organizers can be left footing the bill. That’s not a sustainable model, and one of the reasons why food is still occasional or optional at some of Canada’s civic tech gatherings.
  • Knowing how to measure success. Civic tech community groups are still fairly new in Canada, and some organizers were unsure how to tell if their groups were heading the right direction. They told us that they’d like a guide or yardstick with which to measure success. We’re still a long way from figuring out the perfect formula for civic tech success, but we hope the toolkit can help organizers understand what a successful hacknight can — and should — look like!

In order to properly reflect all these challenges, we decided to add several other pages in the toolkit, including a template for inviting people to attend your hacknight, a “how to stay organized” page and also a “FAQ” page.

Reflection and learning

Looking back on all of the planning, interviewing, prototyping, and designing, launching the initial beta version of the Civic Tech Toolkit feels like a huge feat. And looking back at those sticky notes that we wrote on our first day, we realize just how much we learned about how to tackle a project like this.

The most important lesson we learned was that short feedback loops are valuable. At first, building the toolkit was a very slow process. We didn’t know what pages needed to be added, removed or improved. It can be hard showing incomplete or unfinished work to stakeholders, but that’s exactly what we did to get out of our rut. The feedback we received helped us validate — or invalidate — our assumptions, and make informed decisions about how to best develop the toolkit! We would repeat this iterative process throughout the toolkit’s creation; in fact, we redesigned the introduction three times before it was done!

What’s Next?

We may have gotten the toolkit started, but our hope is that it’s never finished. We’d like Code for Canada’s Civic Tech Toolkit to be a living resource, always being improved upon and updated to reflect its users’ needs. That means we want your feedback. Are you an aspiring civic tech organizer, or a seasoned civic tech practitioner? We want to hear from you: check out the toolkit, and leave comments about what’s missing or how it can be improved.

With your help, we can ensure the toolkit can motivate and inspire readers to build their own civic tech communities, and harness the power of technology, data and design for good!

The Civic Tech Toolkit is the collaborative result of several civic tech organizers and enthusiasts. We would like to acknowledge and thank Gabe Sawhney, Meghan Hellstern, Dorothy Eng, Dan Monafu and Kristina Taylor for their contributions and insights.