How to “Create” a Civic Tech Community

Originally published: Medium - Austin Startups

I’ll be participating as a panelist at the Smart Cities Innovation Summit this week in Austin, Texas.

I’ve been asked to share specific actions Open Austin takes to enhance the “coding culture” of our civic community. We are one example of a Code for America brigade that organizes and contributes to their city.

I put “create” in air quotes because I really think a better word for this type of work is “organizing.” It is not a “build it an they will come” model. It is more human and messy than “building” as in building software.

This is how we organize a coding culture for civic good in Austin…

Organize and meet IRL

We’re fortune to have the 21st century infrastructure that allows meaningful and productive communities to form over the internet. We have our Slacks, Skypes and Google Groups.

But nothing beats meeting up with your peers in real life. A tweet becomes a discussion unconstrained by 140 characters. Threads turn into relationships. Ideas turn into action.

Some events are small. Others are huge! Set a time and show up consistently. The rest follows from there.

photo of a group of 5 people working on a project at a hackathon in a conference room with their laptops

Teams collaborate “In Real Life” at a Civic Hack Night.

wide angle photo of a gym full of people at a hackathon event listenting to presentations from a stage
Tweet by @luqmaan at ATX Hack for Change.

Invite people smarter than you to teach and lead

There’s a thing in the tech world called “imposture syndrome.” Lots of people have talked about it. But you know you are in the right place when you look around you and you feel dumb. Deliberately put yourself in the presence of the people who keep you on your toes intellectually.

With Open Austin, we seek folks whose work inspires us. We invite community members with more experience than our own to share what they’ve learned. When you focus on recruiting leaders, you worry less about recruiting followers.

photo of a group of people in a library conference room listening to a speaker

Dustin Haislerspeaks at an Open Gov & Civic Tech meetup.

photo of a team of people holding up a diagram of a project they are working on. Attached tweet reads Love my #atxhackforchange team - getting to alpha with the open gov partnership pilot! @opengovpart from June 5th, 2016

City of Austin Chief Innovation Officer, Kerry O'Connor, leads a team focused on co-creating Open Government commitments at the ATX Hack for Change.

Let the community define the focus

When you “build” or “create” something, you may feel powerful. Having this type of pride in your organization is healthy, the same way the captain of a football team thinks their team is the best. However, make sure that individual members of the community feel just as much ownership and agency in the work and mission.

Egos distract from productive collaboration. As an organizer, set the example by leaving your ego at home.

How do you do this?

group of people looking at post-it notes organized on a window

Participants decide what problem statements they want to tackle at Code Across 2016.

photo of two women placing post-it notes on a wall, pointing at them and discussing them

Two women collaborate on a project to improve access to healthy food resources using the Civic Tech Planning Canvas.

Make friends

Establishing genuine relationships is the way governing gets done. It’s also the way that community grows. When we build spaces where we can learn from each other, be treated with respect, and have fun, the community will grow. Pretty soon, you will have to look for a bigger space.

In order to build a strong community, members should get the feeling that if they don’t show up, someone will notice their absence. Make people feel genuinely welcome. Make time at each meetup for every participant to introduce themselves and their passions.

photo of five team members working on a project at a hackathon with caption, 'Ready to work on projects to help continue to make our city awesome #atxhackforchange #austin
Tweet by @webalicious.

For more information about how to starting organizing in your community, check out these resources from Code for America.

The organization I help lead, Open Austin, was founded in 2009 and meets several times a month to work on civic tech projects and to advocate for open government.

© Mateo Salinas Clarke.RSS