Hacking Kansas City for Good

Did you know there is a National Day of Civic Hacking? This is not something I knew until a few weeks ago, but it’s an actual thing, and I worked on it recently.

When I told friends and family that I was designing a workshop for Civic Hacking, some of them responded, “Hacking? That doesn’t sound good.” To them, and most people, hacking means breaking into computers. To most of us in the tech and design communities, hacking means something like this:

“Hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.”
— Mark Zuckerberg

Civic Hacking, specifically, is hacking for civic good. It’s a form of social innovation. It means using technical skills to develop tools and services that benefit the public. Although you can find many definitions of civic hacking, I like this one:

Civic hacking is people working together quickly and creatively to help improve government.

HackKC Discovery and Design Workshop

idealect was invited by KC Digital Drive and Code for KC to create a Design and Discovery Workshop for HackKC. The workshop was a one-day event where dozens of civic-minded coders, activists, designers and other volunteers gave up a perfectly lovely Saturday to discuss civic problems and imagine solutions.

HackKC Design and Discovery Workshop 2018

The purpose of our workshop was to identify specific civic problems in Kansas City that could become the basis for ongoing projects. We designed the workshop to uncover those problems, generate ideas for projects, and begin sketching the outlines of what those projects should include. These early efforts help initiate and shape the projects so that they are ready for a two-day hackathon in October when the Code for KC brigade will come together to work intensively on them.

Civic Hackers discuss problems and people at the HackKC Discovery and Design Workshop 2018

Got a Problem?

We started working by identifying and discussing the kinds of problems that people wanted to work on, and those projects were numerous and widely varied. They included air quality, abandoned lots in Kansas City, criminal record expungement, resources for pet owners, equitable access to the arts, and resources for educators. Some of the participants came with projects already in progress, some came with an issue they wanted to tackle, and some came just ready to help. We formed teams around each of the problem areas and started work using Human-Centered Design methods to imagine and shape the projects.

Developing empathy for the people we’re serving is the foundation of human-centered design processes

Building Empathy

We began our work by centering on the people we were going to design solutions for. In most cases, we didn’t have a lot of substantive research yet, so we used an exercise called “Who.Needs.Feels?” to prompt discussion about the people, their needs and the emotional context of their lives.

I typically start exercises like this with silent writing, where each person writes down their thoughts before discussing them as a group. And once the group discussion begins, everyone shares what they wrote. This technique helps mitigate disparities that result from dominant personalities within a team and helps ensure that everyone’s ideas get expressed.

Framing the future helps provide a touchstone for all future decisions about the project

Frame the Future

Once grounded in the present, we shifted our focus to the future. We imagined the future state we wanted to create for our users, and we framed it up in a very simple future framing format: “I want ____________ to ______________.”

In this simple MadLib-style template, the first blank is a description of the people we’re serving, and the second blank is the action statement — something we want them to be able to do or achieve in the future. For example, “I want Kansas City residents to breathe freely and learn about airborne hazards.” I like the simplicity of this format, which I first encountered used by Greater Good Studio.

Idea sessions are fueled by Post-its, coffee and donuts


This is the part of every workshop that everyone loves, and it never feels like there is enough time for generating and talking about ideas. We again started with silent writing using Post-it Notes. It’s a solid technique for creating a large quantity ideas, but one of these days I want to prove that innovation sessions can be done without Post-its. I’ll make it happen. I promise.

On that note, my favorite part of the day was the Team Sketch exercise. This is another idea-generation technique. It requires people to come up with ideas using large-format drawing and forces them to intentionally focus and build on others’ ideas. On top of that, it gets them on their feet, laughing and talking. It really infuses the room with fresh, organic energy. I’m going to incorporate it in every session I can.

Team Sketching adds energy and forces people to draw on different ways of thinking


With an abundance of ideas in hand, the teams worked over lunch to develop their them into a cohesive narrative and to build a pitch for their project. We provided a simple pitch template and guidance on how to create a hook and tell their story. After lunch, each team gave a two-minute pitch and told the story of their problem, their people and their project.

Preparing for a pitch helps people clarify their vision of the problem and simplify their idea


Most of the afternoon session was dedicated to digging in and making the ideas more tangible. The teams worked to build paper prototypes or used apps to make a clickable walkthrough of their high-level user journey.

Even though this kind of prototyping is primitive, investing the time to visualize ideas at an early stage can help identify critical needs, points of failure, and assumptions that may need to be further vetted.

HackKC participants spent the afternoon turning ideas into paper prototypes

Realistic Commitment

We wrapped up the day with a closer look at what it would take to turn these projects into reality. This included taking a hard look at what could be stripped out of the prototypes, even at this nascent stage, to create an MVP (Minimum Viable Prototype).

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Especially in a volunteer organization, but also in the arena of Civic Hacking generally, it’s important to focus on the attainable. Volunteer hours are a limited resource, and stripping a project of extra weight can mean the difference between getting off the ground or crashing.

HackKC Design & Discovery Workshop Participants 2018

Delivering Social Innovation for Kansas City

Between now and the HackKC hackathon October 13th and 14th, the team leaders will meet with CodeForKC and turn these raw ideas into project plans that volunteer coders can execute. At next year’s Design and Discovery Workshop, we’ll be able to show off some of the successful projects that were born during this year’s event.

I’m looking forward to that. Civic Hacking is another manifestation of “Innovation for Good.” It’s another piece of what idealect is building as idealect builds our practice of Social Innovation in Kansas City.