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Lessons from Brigade, Year One: DO THIS!

“If we’re not documenting these experiences and sharing them, then how do we justify all these resources?”

~ Steven Clift (@democracy) speaking with fellows about the need to share learning

In November, I wrote to the 2012 Fellows during their final week that it was the fastest year of my life in a long time. Setting up the Brigade has felt like trying to cap a gushing oil well. The good thing about our collective activity is that we’ve been able to learn and share with our network lessons on what is and isn’t working and why.

Here I report on what’s been constructive.

Do This

1. Establish a Weekly Hack Night

Our inspiration comes from Open City Apps in Chicago who, as members of the distinguished monthly Meetup for Open Gov Chicago, recognized a need for smaller and more frequent working sessions. Their solution was to create Open Government Hack Night every Tuesday from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. (Central Time). Not coincidentally, Open Gov Hack Night takes place at 1871, the popular Chicago co-working space (see also #2, below). Since then the going recommendation has been: create a weekly hack night. You don’t have to hack every week. You’ll devote many weeks to teaching and learning. The point is consistency and nothing says consistency like weekly hack night. Format is simple: around the room updates from active members and intros from new members for the first 5-10 minutes then break into project teams and work. It’s a format that works whether you have one project with a team of two or a handful of projects with their own teams.

2. Partner with a Co-Working Space

Every Brigade needs a place to meet. Some Brigades have reported their struggle to find a meeting place. One consistent piece of advice that often leads to a meeting place is to partner with a co-working office. Most co-working offices, like 1871 in Chicago, DevNuts in Philadelphia, 804RVA in Richmond, Va., and 757 Creative Space in Norfolk, Va. tend to thrive on activity in the space. Co-working spaces like these tend to be extra supportive of civic tech volunteer activities like Brigade. Owners/Operators will usually donate space or offer a significantly reduced rate so your brigade can hold weekly hack nights and small meetings on a regular basis. If you are having trouble finding a co-working space where you live write to brigade@codeforamerica.org and ask the Brigade network. You might be surprised how reaching out to the national network makes it easier to find a partner in your own back yard. If you’re planning and performing Brigade activities in San Francisco, you are fortunate enough to have access to the amazing Code for America office.

3. Partner with Local Government

The second rule of CityCamp is that you don’t talk about…just kidding. The second rule of CityCamp is that “Both public representatives and private citizens must participate.  If one party is absent then the event is not a CityCamp.” The reason is because we want to make space for something besides the tired “us” and “them” mindset. In a partnership, parties work as equals toward shared goals. In the same spirit we think it’s vital to invite government to participate in your local Brigade activities and to encourage members of your local Brigade to participate more in government. You will be much more effective if you meet with government and learn about their processes, systems, constraints, intentions, and desires. This doesn’t mean you work for government. This lesson is about the time it takes to earn mutual respect, to each walk the proverbial mile in one anothers’ shoes. How it plays out where you live is up to you. In Philadelphia and Chicago government executives and their teams regularly participate in Brigade events and activities. Open Oakland meets in city hall. In Austin, Texas, Chip Rosenthal is the Vice Chair of the Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission. Open Asheville, N.C. is lead by city staff in the GIS department with the support of the CIO. In Virginia Beach, Va. Bret Fisher and I have earned “the hall pass” — badges that let us meet with city staff where they work on the municipal campus or around the 350 square mile city. Code for Raleigh Brigade brings signs, like cheerleaders, to council meetings to announce on the record that the community is launching an Adopt-a-Shelter (bus stops) app. They say they’re campaigning with City of Raleigh, N.C. and local businesses to encourage shelter adoptions and  pretty soon members of council are challenging one another to see who can get the most in their district.

4. Pick a Structured Activity and Commit

Well-intended groups can struggle to progress because they don’t commit to specific activities and complete them. Inaction and poor incentives for participation can cause members to lose interest quickly. Most volunteers don’t have the time or inclination to figure things out. Even our most experienced Brigade captains tell us how much they value structure and clear direction. This is why the Brigade strives for sets of structured activities. Commitments need not be grandiose in design in order to be effective. Small pieces, loosely joined, works. An activity could be as “small” as deciding to publish structured data and thematic maps for the locations of child care services or flu shot dispensaries at your next hack night. An activity could be as “big” as developing and implementing a one-year plan with and for local government. An activity could be planning an event.

5. Look for Patterns to Implement

Early on in the Brigade’s first year Clay Johnson and I were talking about Habitat for Humanity, how unskilled volunteer laborers can quickly raise up a house, even entire neighborhoods. On the other hand, if you asked a bunch of construction pros to bring their tools and meet on a site with no building plan they probably won’t get far in a day. CityCamp thrives today because of documenting and sharing its pattern through what Luke Fretwell and I called an open source brand. There are lots of examples like this in the Brigade community and more are forming and being documented on a consistent basis. Our coverage of the flu shot app is one great example.

6. Share Calendars

Every skilled organizer I know wrestles with the challenge of knowing when important things are happening hyper-locally, locally, regionally, nationally, and topically. It feels like an impossible requirement, but there actually is a relatively simple, effective solution. If you are a calendar-keeper then publish your calendar feed online in a standard, machine readable calendar format. All major event and calendar formats can export such files. If you aren’t a calendar keeper but are organizing an event that you want people to know about then send your event to the calendar keepers as a link or file containing the same standard, machine readable calendar format. All major mail apps can do it. When we do this we make it possible and even trivial to aggregate calendars and facet them in ways that let anyone easily filter by topics and locations.

7. Network with Adjacent Communities

Most cities, to some degree, have separate but overlapping communities of interest and practice. One thing we consistently tell people who are interested in starting a Brigade where they live is to establish situational awareness of and connections with Meetups nearby. Searching “[TOPIC] Meetups near [CITY]” is an easy way to find out where to connect. Brigade organizers should reach out to those communities, visit their meetups and invite their members to attend a Brigade meetup. You can find fans, supporters, and volunteers in meetups for programming languages, startups, community groups, data, journalism, transportation, and many others.

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