Involving Non-Developers in Civic Technology Projects

June 30, 2016

One of the largest challenges that I think civic technology projects face is involving non-developers. Every single week that I attend Code for Boston I often see groups crying out for people that are not developers to join and help them. There are a lot of skills and areas that developers are quite happy to disclaim or delegate, but actually engaging non-developers to do these things is difficult. I think it is important to talk about these roles and how we can better engage non-developers because it has the potential to help us build more inclusive innovations and engage communities outside the usual groups we work with.

The first important role is that of project manager. While many times developers serve as project managers, there is an advantage to having a non-technical person serve as the owner and manager of the project. A project manager may have subject matter expertise that the developers lack and thus have a better sense of what goals are important to the project. Sometimes developers struggle to translate real world problems into concrete coding tasks, and a skilled project manager can help their developers with this. A skilled project manager can also spend time managing relationships and expectations with project partners and external parties. Finally a good project manager can spend time bringing new team members up to speed and helping those that are struggling. A skilled project manager can make a big difference in the progress of a group.

The second important role is that of a designer. Many developers specifically disclaim the field of design, which includes creating logos, finding or taking photos, and figuring out what your interface looks like and how it should work. When I had a designer spend a couple weeks with the project I was working at Code for Boston it felt like we made more progress in that month than we had in the previous three combined. While there are templates and other ways for developers to get around the lack of a designer, having one can make a project look more professional and help the team see possibilities they otherwise would not consider.

The third important role is that of a content creator. Many projects have components that involve writing copy and doing research to make sure that copy is accurate. The content creator does not always need subject matter expertise, just the ability to research an area and potentially conduct interviews to generate content that is correct and also easy to understand. In the current project I am working for at Code for Boston, it would be beneficial to have a content creator be in charge of the feature that provides users with energy saving tips. Finding new tips, making sure the tips are accurate, and also removing the unpopular tips could lead to a more successful app.

A civic technology project cannot succeed with geeks alone. We need leaders, artists, and poets. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many civic technology projects have privacy and policy implications that could benefit from the input and help of lawyers. Community organizers, marketers, and data scientists can make the difference between a project that gathers dust and one that catches fire with the public. There is so much that needs to be done and so many projects lack the volunteers that do these things.

How can we better engage with poets and organizers and teach them enough about our technical ways so they want to participate in these projects? What sorts of barriers exist in civic technology projects that make them less appealing to people with these skill sets? Finally how can we make sure that the contributions of these individuals are just as recognized and valued as those that the developers make?

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.