Cities Try to Promote Technology Solutions with New Initiative
This weekend, four cities are inviting citizens, civic hackers and public officials to think about municipal challenges and how civic technology partnerships can solve them.
The events are part of CityCamp, a self-described “unconference” where citizens, developers and city officials share perspectives on community issues and collaborate on action plans. Three events will take place in California -- San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland -- and one in Chattanooga, Tenn. All are organized largely by the civic tech nonprofit Code for America (CfA) through its city brigades. City officials also have offered support.
In San Francisco, keynote speakers include Supervisor Mark Farrell, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath and Chief Digital Officer Joy Bonaguro. In Oakland, the incoming Mayor Libby Schaaf will pay a visit and, similarly, in Sacramento, the mayor for neighboring West Sacramento, Christopher Cabaldon, will speak. To bolster the Chattanooga gathering, CfA plans to send its director of Community Organizing Catherine Bracy to talk about the significance of public-private partnerships.
“We’ve been really surprised at the interest that people have in this event," said Ash Roughani, an organizer and founder of Code for Sacramento (Code4Sac). "It’s a very simple concept in terms of bringing people together ... and it’s really exciting to see people come out and roll up their sleeves and really think about what we can accomplish in 2015."
Roughani said the event, held for the first time in Sacramento, will call attention to Code4Sac’s volunteer group of civic developers and their eagerness to pit tech solutions -- mobile apps, Web platforms and government-partnered open data projects -- against community challenges.
“As Code for Sacramento, we want to be thinking about what issues people are interested in so that we can better connect our capabilities with the needs in the community,” he said.
That sentiment reverberates in Oakland as well. Steve Spiker, co-founder of OpenOakland and organizer of CityCamp Oakland (ccoak), is hosting the event for the third year in a row. Attendees are expected to double this year and fill the Oakland City Hall, the venue for ccoak. Spiker attributed the event's popularity to CityCamp’s casual setup and direct interaction with city decision-makers.
“We’re continuing this because we’ve seen a number of things happen at previous CityCamps. We’ve seen a lot of new projects get started; we’ve seen collaborations formed; and — our main reason for doing it — we’ve seen a lot of new relationships and connections built between the community and government.”
In 2015 Spiker foresees the gathering serving as a safe haven for dialog and for creating innovative ideas. Additionally, for the first time, awards will be given for officials and civic activists who’ve contributed to the city’s civic tech initiatives.
“A big part of why we do it is to connect people in government on a level playing field and in a safe space where people can have those conversations and get to understand everyone’s perspective. That’s the core of why we do it and that’s been fairly successful so we keep doing it,” he said.
Despite CityCamp’s own branding and even a playbook for guidelines, the program is unique in that it’s completely unaffiliated with an organization or corporation. In 2010, tech entrepreneur Kevin Curry and Jennifer Pahlka, the executive director of CfA, conceptualized the idea after a string of transparency and open data conferences were held by Google, the Sunlight Foundation and Tim O’Reilly’s Gov. 2.0. What both noticed was an absence of a venue for civic technology at the municipal level.
“We had these people interested in municipal stuff, so I sent her a message on Twitter and said ‘Hey we should do this CityCamp’ and she replied back saying ‘Yeah we should totally do it and I’ll help you do it if you want," said Curry.
The first event was held in January 2010 at the Chicago Innovation Center where 150 people talked about civic tech, and many of them have gone on to pioneer and push the movement forward, according to Curry. The interest didn’t halt, but only expanded as advocates sought to localize CityCamp.
“People kept writing and asking ‘When are you going to do another one? Can you help me do ours? Can you attend ours?’ Curry said. "And we kept saying no because we really couldn’t."
Curry teamed up with Luke Fretwell, founder of the civic tech blog GovFresh, to brainstorm on how they could expand the event without depleting personal resources. The answer came in a do-it-yourself online package where potential organizers could take a CityCamp template and be instructed on fundamentals. Fretwell composed the branding for the event while Curry included the messaging. Since then, CityCamps have been held in dozens of cities both inside and outside the U.S.
“As soon as we did that, it kind of blew up,” Curry said. “I just think it’s great that it’s a tool that anyone can wield.”