May Volunteer Spotlight

Code for Charlotte will begin a new monthly series highlighting the actual members of the volunteer brigade. CFC uses technology and advocacy as a tool for open government, open data and civic engagement.

Jill Bjers of Code for Charlotte

Jill Bjers, pronounced /b·ɪərs/ (think, be-airs), is a founding member, activist, community organizer, and matriarch of Code for Charlotte. With her trademark style and colored hair, she is a self-described government and civic nerd who passionately captains her motley crew of volunteers from the local Charlotte community. The Code for Charlotte organization is responsible for a number of projects that impact the greater Charlotte area and beyond.

We work with our local government and community to use design, technology and open data to transform our city.

Alex Murray (Code for Charlotte): Hi, Jill! So, before we begin, I have an icebreaker question…chocolate or vanilla ice cream?

Jill Bjers: Vanilla. Yeah, vanilla… But can I switch it out for caramel?

AM: (laughing) Uh…no.

JB: (laughing) AAAGGGHHH! Well then, I would like vanilla with caramel stripes please!

AM: Fair enough! So, I have a few questions for you so the people of our fair city can get to know a little about you, CFC, and the brigade members. How did CFC start?

JB: Well in 2013, the city of Charlotte was being courted heavily by Code for America to have a fellowship for the 2014 year. What the fellowship was at the time was that Code for America would send 3 fellows, who are tech professionals, to work inside city government for a year and create a project. The project was really secondary but the idea was based around creating a cultural shift inside government. The Knight Foundation came onboard as a partner to help make this happen. One of the requirements was that the city had to have a brigade so that the cultural shift wasn’t a temporary one and it would be made up of local volunteers to help continue this path. I was involved in a few voting and registration things and I worked on the DNC when it was in Charlotte. I also do a lot of community organizing within the tech community and they reached out to myself and Jim Van Fleet and asked us if we would like to start a brigade. On January 17, 2014 we had our very first public meetup. We had 80 people show up and it kind of snowballed from there. And, here we are today (laughter).TA-DA!

AM: How many members does CFC have?

JB: Right now in our Meetup we have 1030+ people. Our mailing list is around 1500, but we have about 250 people or so in our Slack channel which is what I would consider our active membership, because those are the people who are communicating on a fairly regular basis. And, every month we have commits from almost 100 different developers.

AM: Can you tell the readers a little bit about how the funding works for CFC?

JB: We are quasi funded. We run a project called Citygram which was actually the fellowship project from Code for America that the city of Charlotte loved and they didn’t want to see it die afterwards. So, we took on maintenance of it and we do a little expansion, but to be honest, most of the expansion is setting up cities that aren’t Charlotte and making sure the code base is easily deployable and can be set up by anybody. The city funds us every year for working on that even though our volunteers work on it. They are very generous and that’s our primary funding. We have received specific grants for different projects through the Knight Foundation, through the Reemprise Fund, and through a few different foundational grants. We also have a couple of projects that the city government pays a little bit to support. They don’t pay market value for what they get. But, they don’t get projects done on a market value schedule. They get it on a volunteer schedule. Take for instance, the CMPD project. They pay us approximately $1500 a year which is pennies for what they get. But, all of it goes towards making sure our volunteers have pizza, beer, and snacks. It also ensures we have a place to meet on a weekly basis.

AM: To your point, it’s all volunteers. There are no paid members of the brigade, right?

JB: Right. We don’t have any paid members. Occasionally, if I find a grant then I get paid. Other than that, we are all volunteers.

AM: What direction do you see CFC going?

JB: Our plan is to solidify our organization by creating a non-profit called Open Charlotte that will help us put more advocacy and more work behind the projects that we are working on and currently exist. Ideally, there are few things that we would love to do in the future. We would love to create a civic tech incubator and help some of these projects spin into actual things like companies. In order to do that, we believe we need a more formal structure than just a meetup. This is where we see it going eventually, but there is no specific time frame.

AM: How does CFC come up with projects? Is it something that people bring to you or do the volunteers come up with their own ideas?

JB: It’s absolutely a combination of all of that. Some actually come directly from government departments. The CMPD officers that run the Christmas gift project came directly to us for help. It just kind of varies. We have been approached by more government partners than we are able to work. We have referred them to other places, but for a time, there was a wait list. We’ve also had a number of projects referred to us because of our community background. Occasionally, we’ve turned them away but, that is pretty rare.

AM: I know that CFC touts itself as not just being for developers. What skillsets are you looking for from your volunteers?

JB: Right, so the tagline is, “not just for coders”. So, if software was built by just developers, it would not look cool. It would look ugly. It would be cool and it would do cool things, but it would be ugly and it would just sit on one person’s computer and no one would know how to use it (laughing). So, it takes a lot of skill sets to make software and tech actually happen. We need designers. We need web developers. We need back-end developers. We need marketers and story-tellers. Uh…we need guest to speak around data advocacy and education. We need communications. We need all sorts of things. We need event planners. If you’re an event planner and you need something to do (makes clucking sound), we’d love you! It takes a lot of things to make this stuff happen. Really, the only skill set that is universally required is that you’re a resident and you care about your city. If you want to make it a better place and you want to be more civically involved, this is the perfect place to do that. If there is a skill you think you want to do and you’re not 100% sure, we can give you some stuff to practice on. If you think that you want to do social media and you are exactly sure how to get that on your resume without it being your own personal social media, I think we can probably help with that. We are all about experimentation. It’s a great place to cut your teeth and learn a new skill.

AM: You’ve said in the past that you don’t teach coding, but you give people an opportunity to further refine their skills by participating in projects and looking at code etc.

JB: Right. We are a sandbox. So basically, with coding specifically, once you learn how to do enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be useful, we are a great sandbox. So, you can come and you can mess around with some code. We have some projects from our larger network that can be forked from Github. You can copy the projects and tear them apart and build them up. Whatever you want to do.

AM: Tell us about some of the projects that you are most proud of that CFC has participated in that people may not know about.

JB: I love to brag about other people’s work! So, one of the projects that I am immensely proud of is the CMPD Christmas project. The CMPD have been doing this since the 70’s and they had been doing it all on paper. And, they generate a lot of paper. They would type it on an Excel spreadsheet. The first year we (CFC) created a Google form for them to use followed by a database with user logins the second year. They thought it was magic. It has allowed them to significantly increase the number to 1700 kids and over 600 families. My goal is by 2019 to not generate any paper which will save a bunch of trees. They have also gone from working extremely long hours at Christmas to working normal hours. They got to see their families at Christmas.

We also have a program called Balance which allows you to text in and get the balance of your EBT card. Unfortunately, almost no one knows about it. Marketers this is for you. Anyone who would like to do research and figure out how to get your state to adopt a really good policy, this is the project for them. Balance is super cool. It uses an API that calls in and uses the EBT phone system, types in your phone tree prompts, types in your account number, listens to the message, transcribes it and sends it back to you in a text. It’s genius. We would love it to be adopted by the state so that all 100 counties can use it as opposed to just Mecklenburg county. It’s a statewide program and works for the entire state. It’s just getting the whole state to know.

We are also working on Open Budget which is super cool. We are starting a campaign to get data from the city that allows residents to visually see how money is being allocated. The budget is currently released in a PDF that will make your eyes bleed about 10 pages in. It is horrible. It impacts every aspect of your life as a tax-paying resident. I am super excited to see where it goes. I am proud of all of the work that volunteers do.

AM: What opportunity areas do you think that CFC can address for the city?

JB: I am not sure there’s not one. I would love for us to build strong relationships with other departments besides IT and the budget departments. Part of our vision is to be the hub of civic innovation in Charlotte. I would love for us to realize that idea; Be that civic partner that the city needs. I think they need an unbiased technology partner. The city has their internal tech with their own opinions, which is fantastic or, they hear the opinions of sales people. They very rarely hear the opinion of a citizen that understands tech but isn’t in it to win the sale. The city sorely needs this. Just like you really want that unbiased friend to smack you in the head when you are about to do something stupid, governments need the exact same thing. All organizations need the exact same thing. It would great to see some of our projects mature to be fully realized as opposed to just being conceptual. I would love to see a cultural shift for the government to be more transparent. I also really want to help more brigade members find employment inside government. If you can get the people that understand how open and transparent data works, it’s almost an instant cultural shift. When they hire these people the thing that happens is, they start seeing where different departments can connect better and how collaboration can benefit the city. Boston is really good at this. They’ve placed 14 brigade members inside city and state government. I really want to get better at doing this.

I have lots of things I’d like to do (laughter). All of the things... All of the things, all of the time! Those are just some highlights of things that I would like to see us accomplish.

AM: Right now, the brigade is looking to groom members to join the leadership team, right?

JB: Yes, absolutely. We are looking for people who would like to step up into leadership positions. If you think you want to learn how to manage teams or manage people, we can help. So, everything we do within CFC is making your city better and its volunteer work, but it’s also professional development. If there is a skill you think you want or a job that you think you want, chances are we need that skill. You can test that out. If you think that you want to do social media for a living, but you’re not 100% sure, come and run our social media for a while and see what the complexities of running campaigns and strategies are. More importantly, see if it’s something you really want to do. If you are a developer and you are looking to develop those mentorship skills and soft skills, that are absolutely necessary in your job now, it’s rare to now have a development job that doesn’t require you to deal with teammates and non-development teammates and clients. Soft skills are very important now. There was a time when soft skills weren’t as important because the only people developers interacted with were other developers. That is no longer the case. If you say what you want to do, we will do everything to get you there. You develop leadership skills by doing it and by practicing. At CFC you can practice those leadership skills while not being completely on your own and not being in a position that will completely screw your career if you screw up. You can learn leadership skills by reading a book or you can learn by practicing. Practicing is much more effective. And, you can learn by giving back to your city at the same time and creating good $#!t. How do you argue with that?

AM: Any closing statements?

JB: Check out our website and check out our meetup. Come and join us. Coders and non-coders alike. There is room for everybody, of every voice, of every background. We are generally nice people (laughter). The thing I like to tell everyone is that, if you are not sure how you can participate, come and join us. Let us show you! Because we can do THAT…

Next month we will highlight volunteer Ambassador, Scott Lundgren of Code for Charlotte.