A Vision for Community Civic Technology

September 03, 2023

With September comes rhythms of Autumn, falling leaves, pumpkin flavored coffee, and a return to school. At community civic tech groups like Code for Boston it ushers in one of the two large surges we have in attendance each year. Whether it’s driven by a desire to make new friends, give back, or learn skills a lot of people take the leap and join the community. Even if it accomplishes nothing else, fostering that community and connection is a worthy outcome that members across the country should take pride in.

Critics in and out of the community sometimes start with impact and numbers. I like to start with people. Do they show-up? What do they want out of their community? Are they happy? Do we give them something worthwhile to spend their time on? Do they come back? Before it endeavors to serve and be a part of the wider ecosystem, a civic technology group needs to serve its members first. If it does not meet those members where they are, it will never meet other communities where they are either.

A group dedicated to fostering community needs leaders. I propose the highest purpose of an Alliance of Civic Technologists is fostering fellowship and building the next generation of community leaders. This starts informally by providing space to share stories, ask for help, and receive constructive feedback. The next phase can be more formal: structured workshops, assigned mentors or coaches, and even a curriculum and certification. If someone is inspired by our message and the work we do, let them know they are not alone and have a place to start cultivating a community where they live. They are not alone.

Communities do not exist in vacuums. Another worthy goal for an Alliance of Civic Technologists is to cultivate connections and partnerships with other communities. This can look like connecting with a corporation that wants to give back by sharing resources. It can mean building a relationship and collaborating with the ACLU on an opportunity for member organizations to work on a project. It can also mean helping members learn how to communicate with folks from the other communities, their traditions and norms, and making introductions. We cannot build with others alone.

Somewhat controversially I will propose a third worthy goal of an Alliance of Civic Technologists is to lighten the load by doing some of things that are less exciting to the community. Traditionally members of Code for Boston are not excited to raise funds or engage in marketing. I have no doubt this is also a challenge in other civic technology groups. Being able to provide a budget and help tell the community’s stories can relieve individuals of those burdens and free them to focus on how they want to contribute. By filling these gaps we can make being an organizer easier, and create a better experience for members across the country.

The most important part of a community civic technology group is the community. It brings people together, creates connection, and then we hope it can have an impact. That impact can and will look different in different places: a vaccine finder in Massachusetts, a Zoning Atlas in Hawaii, or a social service resource map in Florida. We should measure success from all sides: the people helped by the product and the volunteers that are engaged and grow by building it. Not every at-bat is going to be a home run, and that is ok.

As a member of Code for Boston I have gotten much out of being a part of the civic technology community. It is my hope that we can provide the opportunity to build and cultivate this community in every state. That these places be places where our members break bread, build friendships, and find their callings. That governments and non-profits see these chapters as partners to find advice, ideas, and even employees. That they provide our members worthy ways of giving back and improving their regions. That even if they spend a few weeks or months there, members look back fondly and proud of their time with a civic technology community group. I know I always will.

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