Last night I went to Code for San Francisco‘s weekly Civic Hack Night. I wanted to learn more about some of the projects and share what I learned with my class. My students are currently researching Open Source projects to contribute to as part of a “Collaborative Computing” unit. I had looked at some of C4SF’s projects online and joined their Slack list. However, I didn’t feel like I had enough information to guide students. What projects were currently being actively worked on? What kind of contributions were they looking for, if they hadn’t listed them under the project issues? Would they welcome remote contributions from new programmers?
The hack night is held at what I later learned is Code for America’s headquarters, a short walk from Civic Center BART station. It’s a good location if you’re thinking about San Francisco’s civic challenges: there are a lot of homeless people in the area, and despite the many well-to-do tech companies nearby, it is a fairly run-down looking neighborhood.
When I arrived, I was greeted at the door and asked to fill out a red nametag designating me a “new member.” I was then pointed towards the beer and told that food would be ready soon (oh hey, food!) I had arrived early, but everything was already laid out and ready to go: tables in the main room with signs for specific projects and a presentation room with plenty of seating. As a very shy person (though not actually introverted! these are distinct things), I always dread the “mingling” and introducing yourself parts of events like these, so it was lovely that the layout made it easy to find a quiet spot to park myself and get situated before the presentations.
Presentations were roughly as follows: general sorts of updates including announcement of the CodeAcross hackathon, a couple of focused presentations on specific topics (a “civic project lifecycle framework” based on Agile principles, a prototype for a “city agencies leaderboard,” a project called ShelterTech aimed at alleviating homelessness-related problems), then brief pitches for projects looking for contributors. Finally, there was a new member orientation! The facilitators had us all introduce ourselves (about 20 of us). They gave us a definition of Civic Tech: data + a need + tinkering. Then they went over a list of existing projects and offered to personally introduce anyone interested to the relevant project group.
A few of my take-aways from the presentations:
- I should have students search through all the Code for America projects and even Civic Tech projects in general rather than only the Code for SF projects. I learned about this useful Civic Tech Project Search, which in itself is a Code for America project. They should join the Slack discussion group, and I will also suggest they actually attend one of the meetups or the hackathon.
- This Week in Civic Tech: nice list of articles.
- Data is big! I had overlooked the idea of data in thinking about open source projects, but it’s central to civic projects and there are a lot of interesting problems to be explored in data collection, access, and wrangling. Code for America has a whole Data Science team.
- Some project ideas are discussed here in the discovery/research phase.
- They were warmly welcoming of all kinds of skills and explicitly didn’t assume attendees were all developers or tech-savvy. I especially liked the example of the variety of valued contributors to the Local Free Web project: designers, MUNI riders, front and backend developers, librarians (!), testers, translators, flyer-posters, actors.
- I was impressed at the level of organization, and also how welcome I felt at the event. It was very shy-person friendly! It also was a fairly diverse group.
My one critique (and this applies to a lot of tech meetups!) is that when your working day starts at 7:45AM and you’re sometimes up at 5 for class prep, events that go until 10PM and require a lot of brainpower are not ideal! I suspect a lot of service jobs start and end earlier in the day than the typical tech job. I had class the next day so I didn’t stay and hack, but I might be back! In the meantime, I hope these projects catch some of my students’ interest. Planning to report back on how that goes.