Bridging the Gaps: Building a Toolkit for Civic Tech with Civic Archipelago

By Sarah Melton | A spotlight on a Sprint for Internet Health project

Photo courtesy of Nick Kaufmann

Civic Archipelago is an open educational platform and toolkit for civic tech skills building. I interviewed Nick Kaufmann (@nickkauf) and Chris Bond (@chrisjamesbond) to learn more about Civic Archipelago and how you can contribute to the work.

Civic Archipelago is an open educational platform and toolkit for civic tech skills building. Our platform focuses on crowdsourced learning challenges that involve getting active in your community to do or build something with others for the public good.

Instead of prescribing tech solutions, we want to give users flexibility to learn timeless skills like observation, storytelling, and design through real collaboration with their community. Our platform won’t mandate specific technology or programming languages because we want users to be able train in the tech that makes most sense for their community and the challenge at hand. Often times digital technology isn’t the core of what makes a successful civic tech project.

We’re based in Maine, which is somewhat of an archipelago of small communities with different cultures and needs. We have one huge cultural asset in common which is a do-it-yourself spirit and high levels of civic engagement, so we wanted to build a platform for people around our state and farther afield to share skills and solutions they’ve developed in their communities while expanding their civic knowledge and skills.

We’ve been involved in various local civic groups and projects together for sometime, from a modern tech meetup called Hack Portland, to Mechanics’ Hall, an institution that’s had a mission of spreading open tech knowledge for over 200 years, and which, in collaboration with Hack Portland members, recently launched Maine Kids Code, a series of youth programming courses. We’re also part of a civic tech collective called Open Maine, part of the Code for America Brigade network. Groups in our network have been moving from a project development perspective to one centered on people development. Other brigades like BetaNYC have experimented with civic tech fellowship programs and curriculum design, and we wanted to try and envision what a curriculum designed with our region in mind would look like. We think if we can make something that works for a challenging and diverse tech ecosystem like Maine, it can probably work anywhere.

Maine communities have very different capacities when it comes to technology. We wanted to integrate feedback from different ages, locations, and community types but had limited time to establish relationships with potential partners. The potential partners and contributors we did identify ended up being quite different from one another and gave us some valuable feedback. Some of our most valuable insights came from: The Publication Studio, an arts leadership program in Portland, Maine for adults with intellectual uniqueness; Caroline Robinson, a teacher at Casco Bay High School, which uses an expeditionary learning curriculum; and the folks at MakerBay, a social impact makerspace based in Hong Kong. It was encouraging that most of them were already working on similar projects. The real work is still ahead of us, but we’re excited to grow our network and see if we can create something together that’s useful to a variety of organisations with a shared goal of helping everyone discover the “civic maker” inside themselves.

We’re looking for help from all kinds of folks. We want to brainstorm some civic challenges to start filling our framework with content as well as gather feedback on the framework itself. For the website we planned as our prototype, we’re looking specifically for front end web developers to help us fork some code and sketch out a more interactive prototype.

Basically, if this idea inspires you, no matter who you are, we’d like to meet you! We’re looking for a variety of contributors. Particularly if you have experience in open education, civic tech, curriculum design, or web development. Building content and making a better website are the two major tasks we’re working on. For now, you can check out the rough draft of our project website, fill out an interest form to keep in touch, and bookmark our github repo. Feel free to message us on social media, too!

Following along with the meetings themselves taught us a lot about what’s possible with remote collaboration and how to facilitate a good meeting even when not everyone is in the same place. We got a basic rundown of Mozilla’s toolkit for open leadership skills that should become a handy resource for this project and the civic organizations we’re involved in. Above all the connections we made with others in the program inspired us to continue honing our idea and create a foundation that will hopefully allow Civic Archipelago to grow and take on a life of its own.

We chose this gif for our first survey and contact form because so often we speak in general terms like “engaging” without always noticing the specific skills it takes to actually get a civic project off the ground and “make it so.” We’re also huge fans of the @picardtips account on Twitter!

Join us wherever you are during the month of May at Mozilla’s Sprint for Internet Health to work on many amazing open projects! Join a diverse network of scientists, educators, artists, engineers and others in person and online to hack and build projects for a health Internet.

This post by Sarah Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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