Sketch City panel, 12/7/16

How to Get Started on a Civic Tech Project

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.

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