Introducing Open Miami

TL;DR: We’ve started a nonprofit that applies technology to make Miami a better place to live. Support Open Miami today.

A group photo of 2016 CodeAcross Miami event attendees at the Miami Ad School in Wynwood. (Photo credit: Damon Davison)

Four years ago, a group of Miamians decided to meet every week to find a community in programming while finding ways to better their communities. We’d love to share with you our experiences, what we’ve accomplished, where we go next and how you can help.

How we got started

Rebekah Monson and I started Code for Miami in 2013 as a direct result of Miami’s first National Day of Civic Hacking Event — a “hackathon” where participants experiment with prototypes making public data and civic technology more accessible to Miami-Dade County residents. A couple of the organizers wanted to take some of that energy from the event and make it a regular thing, and boom, Code for Miami was born.

Rebekah and Ernie in San Francisco to be an official Code for America Brigade, October 2013.

Code For Miami began as a group of volunteers that met weekly at the LAB Miami in Wynwood, with a small stipend provided by Code for America for pizzas as part of a national civic hacking brigade.

What started out as two or three people a week eventually became a couple of dozen folks coming regularly. (Pizza works!) We took that energy and “leveled up” within the organization a couple of ways:

  • We partnered with Mike Sarasti, who we met from the very start as a Program Manager at Miami-Dade County. He has since become the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Miami, and CFM still works with Mike on a regular basis.
  • We created events like the National Day of Civic Hacking, CodeAcross and the DiscoTech, where we have had guests such as Chief Financial Officer of Florida Jeff Atwater, Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez and the first Chief Data Scientist for the White House, DJ Patil.
Mike Sarasti and I speaking at the CfA Summit in Oakland, June 2016. Yes, we are wearing matching guayaberas and yes, that IS a slide that says “Por al hueco.”
Cristina interviews a resident for a Miami Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) session.
  • As a 2016 Knight Cities Challenge winner, we launched the Miami Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup Miami), ensuring that people building local government technology use real-world feedback throughout the development process by creating a user testing group that will identify user experience issues more quickly, while making websites and apps more accessible.

We continue Code for Miami’s mission to this day through a network of community organizing, educational events related to technology, civics, and issues, to promote and facilitate tech projects based on available technologies and open data.

But we’re facing challenges: Code for America no longer financially supports local Code for America brigades, and a week or two ago we exhausted our last CfA stipend. And, as interest in civic tech grows, we’re having a difficult time keeping up with requests from the community as a loosely organized brigade.

Members of the 2017 Code for Miami brigade, including core team members. (You can just hover over all their faces on the Facebook photo if you want names.)

It’s time for Code for Miami to level up. First and foremost, we must become a financially sustainable community. But this isn’t just about money. If we want civic technology to thrive in Miami, we need to grow as an institution. We need to help civic hackers step into leadership; share their professional expertise with government and community organizations, and champion our shared mission in their communities in new ways. We face a choice: call the past couple of years a positive experience and walk away, or we can figure out how to transition into leading the civic technology movement in South Florida. We know we can do even more in Miami, and with the continued effort and support of the many makers and doers who care about technology and our city, we believe that we will.

Our February 2016 “DiscoTech” event with EcoTech Visions was actually short for “Discovering Technology,” a chance for members of the local community to learn about possibilities available through technology. Also, a DJ, because duh.

Introducing Open Miami

As we attempt to transition from a civic hacking meetup to a true center of excellence for civic technology in South Florida, we need a way to do simple business functions, like paying contractors, accepting donations or grant funding, and, yes, ordering pizza. So, a couple of months ago, our first brigade captains, Rebekah Monson, Cristina Solana and I, started the process to form a nonprofit, Code for Miami, Incorporated. That process is now complete, and we’re adopting a brand new initiative to champion civic tech in Miami, Open Miami.

Logo subject to change, but this is the gist of it.

Open Miami is a non-profit organization on a mission to champion the use of open-source tech in building municipal services and programs that make Miami a better place.

What this means:

  • Code for Miami, and our weekly civic hack night, will be a program of Open Miami. Code for Miami is at its core a volunteer group. Our current co-captains, Julie Kramer, Danielle Ungermann and Chris Scott, will continue their service to the brigade, and the brigade will remain a grassroots volunteer group that learns, hacks, and encourages open-source civic technology together. Open Miami will be working to secure funding for its pizza, hackathons, tools and events.
  • The CUTGroup Miami project has hit the halfway point. If it makes sense to continue the program past October, it will become an official project of Open Miami as well.
  • Open Miami will provide critical infrastructure and support to civic hackers who wish to pursue new grant-funded projects, like CUTGroup, that improve technology and community engagement in Miami.
  • This summer, we will expand our board of directors with help and input from members of the civic tech community to ensure that Open Miami is growing, achieving sustainability and maintaining its mission.
  • At the current board’s request, I’ll act as Executive Director of Open Miami to spearhead our efforts. This remains a part-time, unsalaried position as we work to get Open Miami off the ground. I will continue to manage the CUTGroup project as a contractor.
For our 2015 hackathon events, instead of giving out cash prizes we gave these trophies to all participants made FROM REAL GOLD! No, just kidding. But they are pretty Miami looking, am I right? (Photo credit: Kathy Salerno)

We need your help

Now more than ever, we need your help.

Without support from Code for America or a big endowment to lean on, it will take all of us to make Open Miami a thriving hub for civic technology in South Florida. We’ve been a grassroots organization from the start, and we believe that retaining a strong base of community support for sustainability is an important part of our mission.

We’ve created two accounts on the OpenCollective platform — one for Code for Miami, another for its umbrella organization, Open Miami. We decided on OpenCollective because we need a way to accept donations while being as being as transparent as possible. (OpenCollective makes both expenses and contributions openly accountable to our community.)

With a recurring donation as little as $2 a month, you can help fund costs that many folks don’t usually think about. Sure, there are hacknight pizzas, but there’s also web hosting, monthly costs of web based tools, as well as hardware and network components so volunteers don’t pay out of their own pocket building things like an open-source, Arduino-powered trolley tracker. It also goes to venue rental and supplies for the many events we organize throughout the year.

As a quick side note: if CUTGroup Miami continues past our grant end date of October — and we hope it will — contributions to Open Miami will go towards contractor payments and expenses of keeping the project going.

Our hope is that, with enough funding, we will be able to afford a small staff to manage these and many more projects in a full-time capacity. But one step at a time, for now.

If you can’t afford to donate, but still want to be involved, we need your help too! We need your passion, your design and coding skills, your ideas on how we can make the place we live a better one. You always have an open invitation to meet us Mondays at CIC Miami, sixth floor, 7–9pm. We also have a Slack and a CFM Loomio (a collaborative messaging and decision tool) if you want to chat or propose ideas to make our brigade a better one.

We will need your support and the support of other members of the community to sustain the work we’ve done. The journey ahead seems like a challenge, but we’re excited to take it on with you.

All the best,

Ernie Hsiung
Co-founder of Code for Miami
Open Miami, Acting Executive Director

Rebekah Monson
Co-founder of Code for Miami, Open Miami Board

Cristina Solana
Co-captain Emeritus of Code for Miami, Open Miami Board

Special thanks to Julie Kramer and Greg Bloom.