How To Ignite Your Local Civic Tech Ecosystem: Derek Eder

October 29, 2014 11:11 am PST | Data as a Service

“It is dangerous to say ‘here is the prescription to build your civic tech community,’” said Chicago civic hacker and DataMade founder, Derek Eder, as he opened a conversation with Chris Metcalf at the Socrata Customer Summit 2014, “Every city is different and so their paths to sustainable civic tech will be different.”

Eder went on to tell the Summit’s attendees about his own experience and activities growing the civic innovation community of Chicago. He first got involved at a hackathon where he met, not just other civic hackers, but the city’s chief technology and data officers, too.

“I got involved in civic tech because of a hackathon. And the hackathon definitely has it’s place in kickstarting a community,” Eder said, “But all hackathons, after that first one, start to have diminishing returns.”

Eder’s theory is this: Hackathons take a lot of work and resources to put on and, while they do a good job of getting people excited, these events don’t generally offer a great deal of follow through. So, to really grow and sustain civic hacking efforts, communities need to offer additional events and organization.

Start With A Hackathon

If you’re going to put in a ton of work into creating a kickoff hackathon, you’d better make it count. So here are Eder’s suggestions for how to get the most out of your civic hackathon:

Be Focused

General hackathons are fun, but don’t necessarily accomplish much. You’ll do a better job cultivating interested participants and getting meaningful solutions out of a hackathon that concentrates on one issue or problem.

City Leadership Should Participate

Get your city’s CTO, CIO, CDO, etc. actively involved in your hackathon. People will be excited and stay committed if they see the event matters to city leadership. It is important for internal government experts to be available and accessible when a civic hackers have questions or concerns.

Set Reasonable Expectations

“Hackathons are a great opportunity to inspire people and introduce them to new concepts and that should be the goal of your hackathon,” says Eder. It isn’t reasonable to imagine even your strongest developer can make something truly useful in a few hours, so don’t expect there will be a working product at the end of a weekend.

“The best thing to come out of hackathons are connections made between people,” Eder advises. “If you’re focused on app development, you’re going to miss that.”

Roll Your Hackathon Into a Hack Night

Much of Chicago’s success as a burgeoning civic tech hub is owed to its Open Gov Hack Night, which Eder helped launch. The hack night is a weekly opportunity for civic technologists to continue their work on or find support for a project started at a hackathon. It also gives other interested community members a chance to a join teams, start a new project, or just learn more about civic hacking.

If you start a hack night, be sure to announce it at your hackathon and invite all your hackathon participants to attend (and bring a friend, too.)

Create A Hack Night

It took just a few months for Chicago’s Open Gov Hack Night to grow from Eder and a few friends to a weekly event with upwards of 70 regular attendees. He has a few suggestions of how to make your hack night a success, too:

  • Make your hack night regular and reliable
  • Invite everyone to attend (including non-technical people and experts from inside government)
  • Just get started (don’t worry about finding sponsors, food, or any other resources which generally make event planning difficult)
  • Encourage people to share what they are doing
  • Break into groups to hack and designate a facilitator for each (some groups are based on coding language, but Eder suggests that breaking out by issue or problem is more effective)
  • Let people self-organize

Other Tips For Your Civic Tech Community

Don’t Force Open Source

Eder believes that civic hackers should be encouraged to make apps in whatever ways they see fit. For some that will mean open source, but it will not for others.

“Philosophically, it makes sense to release an app as open source if it’s based on open data,” Eder contends, “If you want to show people what’s happening in their city you want to spread that information and not charge for it. Eventually, if an idea catches on, maybe other people will see the value in paying for it. So think of open source as a way to help good ideas spread. It’s a marketing approach.”

Civic Apps Don’t Stand Alone

Eder posits that part of the issue with making civic apps sustainable is that all these apps get lumped together. “It doesn’t make sense to think about a ‘civic tech ecosystem’ as an independent thing,” he said. “There are good civic apps and bad ones. If you are serving people’s needs and solving problems, you don’t need to be part of a specifically designated civic tech ecosystem to make, market, or use these apps.”

Great Data -> Great Apps

“Don’t be afraid to offer incredibly granular data to the public,” Eder told a room full of government data managers. Some of the most popular data sets Chicago offers have millions upon millions of rows with a lot of detail. But, he adds, if you are going to offer these high-value data sets, it is incredibly important to:

  • Document your data
  • Offer a data dictionary
  • Say who created and owns the data set
  • Include who to call with questions

Get Out There

“Data, itself, is not self explanatory,” Eder ventures, “So if governments want to encourage public usage of their data, they should also physically go to their local meetups or civic tech groups and become the person everyone looks to when there is a question.”

The real takeaway from Eder’s comments is that you’ve got to be willing to invest time and human capital to sustain a civic tech community. “It takes people,” he says, “If you are looking for tech solutions, it just won’t happen without person time.”


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