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Why the Civic Hacking Community Needs Non-Coders

June 26, 2014 Category: Uncategorized

Mark Headd giving a presentation about open source program GitHub at CityCoHo

Corey Acri wasn’t sure if Code for Philly was right for him. The local chapter of the civic hacking group Code for America was filled with talented talented coders and technologists, and Acri had very little coding skills beyond the basics he learned in college.

So he sent an email to Chris Alfano, a lead organizer of the Philly chapter and CTO at Jarvus, to see if he should attend the group’s weekly meetups. Alfano told him something that would change how he thought about civic hacking: no existing skills were necessary. All you needed was dedication.

Since then Acri has helped develop a successful civic hacking application, Cycle Philly, which records cyclist biking habits such as route and time traveled, as well as the purpose of the trip. The app has recorded over 5000 trips.

Part of the reason Cycle Philly has been so successful is because of the non-coding skills, such as his communication and design skills, that Acri contributed to the project, including his experience communicating with other organizations. While living in New York, Acri served as Assistant General Counsel for New York City Office of Emergency Management.

“That organization is all about collaborating among the different city agencies, so having a little bit of experience with that, I think, helped me figure out who we need to talk to to get some interest in actually planning around the [Cycle Philly] project,” Acri said.

Acri and his team members, Lloyd Emelle and Kathryn Killebrew, worked with The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to help plan the app. Both organizations will later use the data to help prioritize transportation spending on bicycle improvements and safety.

Another successful Code for Philly application, greenSTEM Network, owes some of its success to non-coding members on its team.

From our Partners

greenSTEM Network connects youth to the environment by giving students in Philadelphia-area schools the ability to monitor data from gardens, green roofs, and stormwater infrastructure. The project was created by Matthew Fritch,  an environmental engineer with the Philadelphia Water Department, who didn’t have any experience in coding when he first came up with the idea.

The trick was finding the right partners. Fritch first brought the greenSTEM project to PhillyTechCamp.

“I heard about the TechCamp hackathon sponsored by the US State Dept. and School District of Philadelphia, and saw it as a way to further some of the work I’d been doing with low cost environmental sensors at the Water Department,” said Fritch. He ended up talking to Christopher Nies and Kevin Clough at the event, and the three of them began working on the project that weekend.

“None of us wanted the project to die, so we continued working on it at Code for Philly weekly meetups for more than a year. It is definitely a welcoming community, and now that foreign tech language makes sense to me — most of the time,” Fritch added.

Since then, the team has worked with a number of other non-coders as well.

“We’ve had people help with brainstorming, branding, project management,” Nies said. “Not only that, but we’ve partnered with teachers to get these devices into classrooms, to explore curriculum elements that utilize them, and to get feedback on the future of the project and how we can improve.”

Mark Headd, former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, attributed part of greenSTEM’s success to the fact the team has a mix of coders and non-coders.

“I think that’s one of the reasons that project is so successful. You have a nice mix of coders and developers and people that understand microprocessors–but also someone [Fritch] who understands the science behind it all,” he said.

Civic Apps Need Non-coders

Sometimes civic hacking projects are missing marketers, users to test the app, and writers that can really help a project get off the ground.

“These projects are doing really cool things that people should know about, and often times we don’t have the marketing power behind them for people to know they exist. Some of our best projects have unfortunately not been widely adopted because we don’t really have the marketing power behind it,” said Christian Kunkel, another Code for Philly organizer and Director of Education Technology at Jarvus.

Headd, now a developer evangelist for Accela, said that projects are often missing documentation and other key parts that could make them truly valuable apps.

“Even if the app is really good, no one may know about it, which doesn’t make it any good.” Headd said. “Also, I think there’s a misconception around civic hacking that it’s just for hackers, that it’s just for technologists — it isn’t. It is all the same basic ingredients that go into successful apps.”

Nies added that civic hacking groups don’t necessarily do the best job of making it known that non-coding skills are needed.

“There’s a huge marketing problem I think civic hacking groups have: We don’t do a good enough job involving people without coding experience. A successful project is so much more than code – it’s finding an audience, getting the design and user experience down, connecting with citizens, coming up with ideas,” Nies said. “Code for Philly has actually seen some success with this, but overall I think it’s a real failing on our part that we aren’t letting people know: technical skills don’t matter. If you’re a concerned citizen, if you WANT to get involved, we need you.”

How to Get Involved

Kunkel said members of Code for Philly are willing to help people learn new skills as well as put their current skills to good use.

“Every one of our projects has a whole lot of needs, not just coding,” Kunkel said.

The best way to get involved, according to a number of civic hackers, is to just jump in. This can be done by attending a Code for Philly meetup or a hackathon. Nnena Odim, who has helped out with design on numerous Code for Philly projects, agreed with that.

“No matter what you’re good at, whether it’s coding, design, writing, blogging – anything – there is always going to be a project that will benefit from your specific skill set. So, even if civic hacking seems like quantum physics to you, just show up,” said Odim.

“It took me a few Code for Philly workshops for the concept of civic hacking to really sink in, but just being around a talented group that cares so much about what they’re doing really helped me understand and made me want to get involved even more,” she added.

Girl Develop It Philly is also running a “Summer of Open Source Code” to encourage more people, especially women, to get involved.


Further Reading


Girl Develop It Philly

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