Category : Civic Hack Night

How to Get Started on a Civic Tech Project


Sketch City panel, 12/7/16

On Wednesday, December 7th, we got together at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Center to hold a panel on some of the ways our community members have gotten started on civic tech projects, with updates on where those projects are now. The goal was to provide detailed accounts of how people like you have taken a few different ideas about how to improve their communities, united teams around shaping them into projects, and worked to make them happen. This event was presented by Sketch City and AT&T.

Christmas 2016 at TMCx

The speakers who shared the stage, from left to right, were:
* Jeff Reichman, panel moderator, Sketch City
* Chris Valdez, Primer Grey and its new public interest initiatives arm, PGPI
* Jo Layne Skillman, Black Sheep Agency and AIGA Houston
* Evan O’Neil, PGPI and AIGA Houston
* Naren Salem, SOTAH Smart Apartments and Design Thinking Houston
* Neeraj Tandon, Houston R Users Group, Houston Data Visualization Meetup, and Code Park Houston

Everyone shared their answer to the question, “How do you get started on a civic tech project?”

Neeraj, donning his educator hat, used a white board to answer the question, and talked about working on a project called Johns Beware. It started on our Github repo of project ideas just before the 2016 Houston Hackathon in May, went on to become one of the hackathon winners, and has turned into a larger effort of experts working to stop human trafficking in Houston and beyond.

Neeraj Tandon graphs how to get started on civic tech, Dec. 7, 2016.

Favorite part of that graphic: get schooled. Truth!

Naren spoke of many civic tech projects he’s launched and joined toward helping his community, including Rebuild Meyerland, a design thinking research project to help flood victims in the Houston area after recent flooding. The team followed their curiosity about resiliance and flood victims. How are they best able to rebuild and what resources help them do that, and how quickly? They studied the aftermaths of Katrina and other natural disasters, and compiled their research in a report for anyone rebuilding or helping others rebuild. If that kind of work sounds right up your alley, reach out to Naren about a collaboration with Design Thinking and Sketch City.

Evan and Chris talked about their inspiration and process for starting a new design department for the public interest under Primer Grey, PGPI. Contact them for more information. They talked about their starting principles, including: don’t look for money from the people being served, but instead seek grants, foundation money, and crowdfunding.

Everyone underscored Neeraj’s point about the power of having a subject matter expert. If you talk to someone who’s doing the work day in, day out, then you can begin a real conversation about solving problems. And you can ask real questions such as, why are you even doing this? Experts may not have the best polish on their communication skills to newcomers, but that’s where designers and communications people can do valuable work.

One example: Texas Record Bleach, a project for helping Texans expunge their criminal records that was a 2016 Tech for Justice winner. Engaging with people who were already doing the legal work of this project helped the technical team quickly produce a solution.

Jo talked about her civic project, the Better Make Room campaign for FLOTUS. If you haven’t heard, the White House chose Houston-based Black Sheep Agency to help them brainstorm and communicate to high-school aged kids the importance of going to college. The problem: more and more of this cohort is devaluing college, partly because they see startups and the Youtube famous as being full of college dropouts. Jo directed the art for a campaign to flip celebrity on its head and celebrate persistence, and encourage kids to publicly share their goals.

Jo shared some tips for getting involved in civic tech projects:
* Pick something you’re passionate about. You’re going to need that passion to carry you through the hard work.
* There’s no room for egos. Your idea may not survive the ultimate goal of the project, and that’s OK. It doesn’t matter what part of the work you’re responsible for, as long as it progresses and serves people.
* Seek out experts and people who are on the front lines. Related: don’t reinvent the wheel. Big problems have lots of people working on them. They could always use more, but don’t redo work that has largely been done. Help push through to more problem-solving.

During the audience question period, Jesse Bounds from the City of Houston asked the panel what their experience was with working with the city. Jo’s take: most people don’t know how to interact with City Hall or what the opportunities are. Neeraj seconded that meeting people half way is important. Evan added online communication is key, as well as investment in physical space. Having the time and space to learn and figure things out is often where big change begins. Houston is spread out, but for example, what if the entire community could meet on the first floor of City Hall? That was an idea the audience could get behind.

Did you attend? What did you think? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter or Facebook, or in our community chat, Slack. We’d love to hear from you.

Did you miss Wendesday’s event? Not to worry, we’ve got weekly meetings every Tuesday evening, 5-8 pm, at the Leonel Castillo Community Center. Many thanks to our gracious hosts.

Hack Night Report: Digital Divide


Over the last eight months, we’ve been “theming” our monthly hack nights. We’ve had guest speakers talk about democracy, media, mobility, housing, sustainability, public health, and education.

In August, our topic was the digital divide. Megan Steckly of Comp-U-Dopt gave an excellent lightning talk about how they help children earn access to technology tools.

Megan Steckly from Comp-U-Dopt was our guest speaker. Comp-U-Dopt has provided over 8,000 computers to kids in need. Photo by Sarah Rigdon.

After the lightning talk, we tried something new (which is also the reason for this blog). We treated the remaining time like a collaborative work session. Attendees broke into groups and researched the aspects of the digital divide that are most interesting to them.

First Research Group – Wifi Access

One of my favorite parts of the evening was talking to David Crowl about the Greater Houston Partnership’s downtown wifi initiative. This program is classified as “recreational wifi” and aims to add broadband capacity for people in downtown for a short period of time. For example, cellular service in the Houston tunnels is spotty at best. The downtown wifi initiative addresses this by providing free wifi throughout the tunnel system. We discussed how this could be a model for providing connectivity in big, cellular dark spots.

Next, we looked at innovative local programs like We Can Houston, who provides wireless broadband “zones” in underserved neighborhoods, as well as grassroots campaigns like We Heart Wifi, which aims to “build support for increased use of open, unlicensed radio spectrum across the nation.”

We also looked five years out, discussing “wireless fiber” and the impact it might have on internet choice and costs in limited access neighborhoods. And as we’re more increasingly dependent on broadband infrastructure, there are products like BRCK (from the awesome folks at Ushahidi) that can provide internet “backup” services by connecting to the internet through ethernet, 4G cellular, or as a Wifi bridge. There is also a cool public/private partnership from Facebook and the City of San Jose that can serve as a model for other cities. And Google is doing some crazy stuff with balloons.

Second Research Group – Technology and Hardware

Digital Divide Hack Night in Houston on August 18, 2016

The second research group took on another major aspect of the digital divide: access to technology and hardware. While students are more likely than adults to access the internet on their smartphones, many schools and employers also have baseline expectations for student and employee computer literacy. Without regular computer use, students and job-seeking adults are less likely to pick up the necessary skills.

This group focused on how to make donating used tech easier. Our guest speaker’s organization, Comp-U-Dopt is our best local example. They take in old computers, wipe their hard drives, and install a suite of educational tools that don’t require internet access. On average, they “adopt” about 1,500 computers a year out to Texas students.

Other ideas that the group researched included separate bins at recycling centers for technology donations, better advertising for places to donate, and options to drop off your old computer when buying a new one at stores like Apple, Microsoft, and Best Buy. They also looked at incentive programs for donating used technology and options like at-home pickup to make it easier.

Other cities and states have models that we can follow. Maine had a 1-1 Laptop program for middle school students since 2002 that expanded to high schools in 2009, and there are many other nonprofits and government efforts to increase access for students, families, and seniors that Houston can learn from.

Third Research Group – Technology Use Patterns

The third research group took a slightly different approach to technology hardware and focused on the patterns of use. They began with this research paper from the Federal Reserve (2008) that shows “teenagers who have access to home computers are 6 to 8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than teenagers who do not have home computers after controlling for individual, parental, and family characteristics.” Home computers also lead to fewer school suspensions.

Since the benefits of home computers are statistically significant, the group posed the question: what is it, exactly, that kids are learning/doing on their computers at home? Can this benefit be achieved by some other means? They looked at this study from 2010 looked at computer vouchers given to approximately 35,000 recipients enrolled in Romania’s public schools. The study found “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher had significantly lower school grades.”

It also found “little evidence that winning a computer voucher affects behavioural outcomes. These results may not be so surprising given that few parents or children report having educational software installed on their computer, and few children report using the computer for homework or other educational purposes. Instead, most computers had games installed and children reported that most of the computer time was spent playing games. There is also some evidence that winning a computer voucher reduced the time spent doing homework, watching TV, and reading.”

Bringing it down to the local level, this group worked with Megan Steckly of Comp-u-Dopt to outline key digital divide statistics in Houston:

  • 2.1 million people in Houston
  • Low income is defined as a household with income under $30k/year
  • 34% of households in Houston are low income
  • This means 714,000 people in Houston are considered low income
  • And that means 357,000 without computers at home, or 89,500 households
  • 178,500 of those with computers have internet
  • In 10 years, Compudopt have given out 8,000 computers. Which means they’ve solved 8.9% of the problem

Wrapping Up

Unfortunately, not all research groups captured their notes. Our goal in future monthly hack nights is to report out our research on this blog.

We had a lot of fun exploring a complicated topic from multiple angles. If you’d like to participate in next month’s topic (Kittens and Puppies!) please RSVP here.

March 24: Democracy Hack Night


On March 24, join us for a hack night about technology and democracy. We’ll have great sample projects and a series of lightning talks about voting, tech, data, and the democratic process.

For this event, we’ve partnered with the League of Women Voters. It’s part of a series of democracy-themed events throughout March. More details coming soon!

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