Buttons and stickers from the Code for America Brigade Congress.

Great Things Happen When Civic Hackers Get Together

Editor’s Note: In mid-October, Alex Chen (Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development) and Irene Quarcoo (Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services) attended Code for America’s Brigade Congress in Philadelphia. They took some notes on how public service and civic technology groups can work together.

The Ontario government is in the midst of a digital shift that’s seeing public servants and community groups reimagine the way that people interact with and access government. We’ve had the unique opportunity to be a part of this shift both within government and through the work we’re doing in the community.

We’re public servants by day, and by night, we’re part of the organizing team at Civic Tech Toronto. Civic Tech Toronto meets on Tuesday evenings with the aim of better understanding and finding solutions to civic challenges through technology, design and collaboration.

In late August, we heard that Code for America was going to be hosting a Brigade Congress in Philadelphia. We simply had to go! The Brigade Congress is an unconference where organizers from civic tech groups around the world come together to share with and learn from each other.

We really care about the intersection of tech and government; going to this conference was a great opportunity to network with fellow civic tech nerds (and borrow ideas that we can implement here at home).

We went there with one key question: how might we, as government employees, partner with and draw upon the energy and know-how of civic tech organizations to better the lives of all Ontarians?

Here’s a quick roundup of the sessions we attended and some of the things we did:

Wild Combinations

Civic Tech Toronto, in conjunction with Toronto-based Connected Lab, is creating a game that promotes discussion, ideation and brainstorming. Wild Combinations is a card game where participants draw three cards: a Scenario, a Technology, and User card, which are then combined to inspire a product or solution.

We conducted user testing, collecting feedback that we’ll be using to improve the game with the hope of making it available to everyone. We collected great responses and saw enthusiastic uptake from the Code for America community. It was fascinating to see how people with different skillsets approach problem solving.

As government employees, we saw value in hearing how people in different communities could provide insights and solve complex problems that government grapples with every day.

Snapshots from the Code for America Brigade Congress.

Data Science

The Data Science session at the unconference outlined what products and analysis can be done when the civic tech community works and builds with government. From building a fire risk analysis tool in San Francisco, to projects with small business associations, there is a considerable value when data science is leveraged for the common good.

A lot of this discussion centred around procurement. When we write Requests For Proposals (RFPs), they tend to favour large established companies. There is an opportunity to tailor RFPs to the skillsets of the civic tech community so that a wider range of providers can bid on government initiatives. This requires that both sides speak the same language, whether it be code, legalese, or any field-specific jargon.

Gender Diversity

Irene partnered with Emma Burnett of Code for Maine to run a session about gender diversity (and the lack thereof) in the civic tech realm. The facilitated discussion centred on three main themes:

  • Sharing success stories: civic tech groups (particularly Chi Hacknight and Civic Tech Toronto) are working to foster inclusive environments that celebrate diversity, in the true sense of the word, and intentionally creating opportunities for women to be a part of the conversation and work that they are doing.
  • Highlighting challenges and sharing stories about the lack of gender diversity in the civic tech realm, and tech industry more broadly.
  • Providing concrete tips and strategies to create spaces where women are welcome, valued and can contribute.

Lessons for Public Servants

Now that we’ve been back for a few weeks, we’ve had time to reflect on what the biggest lessons we learned could mean for public service:

  1. Understanding the bus effect: The idea of bus effect comes from the phrase “in case someone gets hit by a bus.” In other words, how many people have to get hit by a bus before your organization can no longer function? It’s a measure of the risk associated with not sharing information, process and capabilities among team members. This measure of risk is a real thing and can be avoided by intentional thinking, succession planning and creating redundancies.
  2. Building capacity in government for technology proposals: With the changing technology landscape, it’s important to have public servants who understand technology, and to also have procurement processes that allow smaller, innovative technology companies to get onto Vendors of Record lists. How might we build capacity within government so that public servants better understand what they can do with technology and assess new businesses and their technology offerings? What technology can (and should) be built in house and what do we need help with?
  3. Using shared language: Talking about policy and planning is very different from talking about tech. When public servants engage with civic tech communities, it’s important that we adopt a language we all understand. Staying away from jargon and acronyms is crucial to mutual understanding.

Overall, the Code for America Brigade unconference was a great success and we can’t wait for the next one. It’s crucial for public servants to engage with the civic tech community, and we’re excited that Ontario is already doing a lot to forge that relationship.

Snapshots from the Code for America Brigade Congress.

Alex Chen is a Policy and Planning Analyst with the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. His goals in life are to have it all: corgis, kayaks and ocean front property (on a high cliff). When he isn’t thinking about his goals, he makes maps using spatial data, takes photos, organizes CivicTech Toronto and cooks pork belly.

Irene Quarcoo is an Analyst and Editor at MCSCS. A Civic Tech Toronto cofounder, she’s an avid advocate for human centred design, loves colour and has a thing for sans serif fonts. When she’s not busy with work or grad school (yes she’s doing both…at the same time) you’ll find her painting, playing RPGs on Xbox or planning her next gastronomic adventure.