What Code for San Jose Should Learn From OpenStreetMap

Reflections on civic tech volunteerism from National Day of Civic Hacking 2017

My first ever contribution to OpenStreetMap took place this year on National Day of Civic Hacking, September 23, 2017. As someone who’s been a Brigade captain for 3.5 years, it was eye-opening to experience a platform that manifests so many ideals of the civic tech movement. Free and open, global in scale but community-driven, editable by anyone. That’s OpenStreetMap.

Civic hackers unite! The crew of participants at Code for San Jose’s mapping party on National Day of Civic Hacking 2017

Driven by the vision of Code for San Jose co-captain Vivek Bansal and open mapping power contributor Minh Nguyen, Code for San Jose celebrated National Day of Civic hacking by holding a mapping party. Vivek and Minh set out to accomplish two goals: (1) Start up a South Bay OpenStreetMap community, and (2) Import San Jose sidewalk data to OpenStreetMap.

The event was the perfect way to leverage Code for San Jose’s infrastructure as a gathering place for local civic hackers (our Meetup group, Slack community, and wonderful venue, The Tech Museum Bowers Institute) in combination with OpenStreetMap’s infrastructure for enabling anyone to contribute to a free map of the world.

Code for America’s founder Jen Pahlka kicks off Code for San Jose’s National Day of Civic Hacking with words of inspiration

We were delighted to be joined by Jennifer Pahlka, Founder and Executive Director of Code for America. Jen’s remarks and her presence throughout the day helped us connect our experience to the Brigade network throughout the country, reminding us that our efforts are part of a larger movement.

Based on my one day of experience at National Day of Civic Hacking, I see lot of things that OpenStreetmap gets right about civic tech volunteerism that Code for San Jose should learn from.

What OpenStreetMap Gets Right that Code for San Jose Is Still Figuring Out

One of the thorniest problems we struggle with at Code for San Jose is how to plug new members into our projects. Many folks show up at our civic hack nights, curious and eager to contribute to a civic project, only to be told by us that it’s largely up to them to figure out a new project to work on. Except for a few rare folks who come in with a skill that happens to be needed by an existing project, we don’t have a system that helps new members start hacking on something meaningful. (And, we’re all volunteers, so we just don’t have time to play matchmaker and find projects for everyone to work on.)

In contrast, OpenStreetMap has built the community infrastructure to leverage the contributions of over 4 million users around the world. It has done so by making it incredibly easy for new people to join and stay active in the OpenStreetMap community.

As Minh Nguyen urged us at the start of National Day of Civic Hacking: “Just click the edit button and contribute. You don’t need permission.”

Here are a few ways I wish Code for San Jose was more like OpenStreetMap.

1. Low barrier to entry. It’s incredibly easy to become a contributing member of the OpenStreetMap community. Anyone who’s interested can start from their own home. There’s no need to attend an evening hack night, convince an existing project team to take you on, or browse through dozens of half-baked Github repos trying to figure out if help is needed.

2. Lightweight tutorials to onboard people. OpenStreetMap offers a variety of well-developed resources for new folks looking to plug in. There’s LearnOSM, the Beginner’s Guide on the OpenStreetMap Wiki, and a friendly walk-through of the in-browser editor, iD. As for Code for San Jose, I’ve wanted to create civic tech tutorials together for years, but I’ve never gotten around to it. One problem is, what would I teach? Is there a fundamental civic tech curriculum?

Screenshot of the introductory walk-through to iD, OpenStreetMap’s in-browser editor

3. Flexible commitment. There’s no minimum commitment required to contribute to OpenStreetMap. You can add 1 business or 100 businesses in a given sitting; you can spend 1 hour or 100 hours a month adding content. That means OpenStreetMap can welcome contributors of all kinds. That’s not true of Code for San Jose as we operate currently. The teams who have developed working civic apps have devoted dozens or hundreds of hours of commitment over many months. Identifying a problem, starting up a project team, developing a prototype, testing with users — all these tasks take a lot of time. We’re lucky to have a few such s/heroes in Code for San Jose, but I bet there are a lot more people who would be happy to just come by and add a few squares to a map once every couple of months.

4. Organize tasks so that they’re easily discoverable. To organize our National Day of Civic Hacking participants, Vivek created new tasks in the OSM tasking manager for importing sidewalks and for adding local businesses. These tasks include not only instructions but also a way to distribute and track user contributions to specific squares on the map.

Obviously, there’s a lot of structure and infrastructure to OpenStreetMap that makes all of the above characteristics possible.

While Code for San Jose’s work is unlikely to ever be as focused or structured as OpenStreetMap, I wonder if we would be able to meaningfully engage a broader set of volunteers with more focus on contributing to existing platforms (such as OpenStreetMap and LocalWiki) and less focus on creating custom apps. Civic tech volunteers don’t all need or want to be heroes. Many just want to spend some time with other people contributing to something bigger.

I also wonder what it might look like to build Brigade community infrastructure at a scale that would make it as easy for folks to plug in to Brigade projects as it is to start contributing to OpenStreetMap.

Jen Palhka interviewing and filming Yan-Yan Choy, Code for San Jose developer and project lead for the Renter’s Right Guide

What do you think?

I’m eager to hear the perspectives of others in the Brigade and OpenStreetMap communities.

I’m also expecting that a lot of great ideas on Brigade community infrastructure will come out of this weekend’s Brigade Congress in Philadelphia. (I won’t be attending, but three other fabulous Code for San Joseans will be.)

Meanwhile, Code for San Jose is going to continue holding monthly mapping parties as part of our regularly scheduled Civic Hack Nights. Check out our event schedule on Meetup and come map with us.

Acknowledgements: Huge thanks to Vivek Bansal, Minh Nguyen and Ari Chen for doing the heavy lifting organizing Code for San Jose’s National Day of Civic Hacking 2017 event.