“No other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge.” -Jane Jacobs
Building a grassroots civic-tech ecosystem in a mid-sized metro area the size of Savannah requires more than just recruiting local developers and designers to join in and volunteer for a shared civic cause. For while we have a rather large and rapidly growing number of developer types for our relatively small city, we cannot expect systemic change from our efforts if we don’t actively reach out and engage the broader Savannah populace, many of whom experience the lived realities of the digital divide and who don’t understand why there should be a change in the status quo.
But what about the whole ‘build something awesome and let that awesome thing catch on and do the outreach for you’ approach touted by many in the civic tech community? Well, that’s only a shade different from the misnomer that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ While it’s certainly possible for a solution developed by the civic tech community to, by itself, change the minds of decision-makers, rarely, if ever, does change happen in such a direct fashion. People must be involved along with the technology. Any solution will eventually require vocal advocates who benefit from the new solution for the solution to stand the test of time. In this case, those advocates are the constituents of the decision-makers, those who have a vested emotional interest in the solution and not just a sense of fulfilling civic obligation. Civic tech isn’t just something we shovel onto the web and can expect to be adopted.
Which leads me to my next point: Civic tech is not a product. It’s a movement, a mindset, a way of improving weakened civic institutions through an open-source, iterative approach to public policy and efficient government services. In that sense, then, lasting progress cannot be expected to come from a single cool civic app. Lasting, transformative change takes time, collaboration, small victories and getting outside of the command line.
Fostering an environment of active inclusivity by creating a new type of hacknight Open Savannah, a part of the Code for America network, held its first Community Engagement Launchpad Apr. 13th. We took special efforts in planning the event to ensure it was actively inclusive to citizens of all technical backgrounds and all walks of life. This active inclusion differs fundamentally from what I call passive inclusion, which refers more to the notion of simply being welcoming to all groups. We must do more than simply being welcoming and practicing passive inclusion if we truly want inclusivity. We must make ourselves uncomfortable.
The resulting app was almost entirely the product of a two-hour collaborative sprint of residents entering data using their own ‘locality knowledge.’ Not of coding or design chops. Not of command line prompts and SSH connections. But of knowledge already existing in the community.
This was the essence of the event format we plan to continue to host regularly moving forward: the Community Engagement Launchpad. A successful CE Launchpad can take any number of different approaches, but we identified a set of general guidelines for what makes a CE Launchpad.
The goal is not so much to produce a perfect product as it is getting community residents involved in the process of civic technology, and helping them realize they, too, can make a difference. In other words, the goal is community engagement.
These are events that focus on addressing a project idea generated either at a Community Input Event or on the Community Input category of this forums in a lean manner. Ideally, community launchpad events will be structured in such a way as to allow frictionless ongoing contributions from participants long after the night has ended.
The project should solve some civic need, but it need not be visionary in its approach or vast in its scale. The goal isn’t to build a complex code-intensive project. Rather, it is to have as many different residents from different neighborhoods and different backgrounds together in a shared physical space to work collaboratively on some digital artifact that improves their communities. This fosters a sense of community investment in the Brigade’s work, and allows opportunity for participation, feedback and experential learning from residents who may otherwise not interact with the Brigade.
Community Engagement (CE) Launchpads need not be part of a larger project, and they are only one of a variety of different ‘hacknight’ style events the Brigade hosts. They are education-focused and experentially-motivated first an foremost. They are not meant to solve in a single swoop complex problems.
Assuming a CE Launchpad goes well, it can be maintained and grown into a more mature effort deserving of possibly even beta release. A CE project will always be open-source.