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What I Learned at the Summit

Kevin Roden serves District One on the Denton City Council.

The belief that the citizens of Denton, Texas are our city’s greatest, yet most underutilized asset compelled me to run for City Council a little over two years ago. Convinced by Alexis de Tocqueville’s insight that “the institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science,” I have long been concerned that the health of our national democracy is contingent on robust and vibrant local democracies. It is in the context of a city where we learn to be democratic citizens. We learn how to navigate and negotiate varying interests early on and in the most mundane of places: the playground, the dinner table, the sidewalks of our neighborhood, and the public square.

Yet for most of us, our political beliefs and behaviors are reared almost exclusively by a much more abstract and polarizing national landscape. At that level, with many shiny objects to captivate us, democracy seems much more alluring, yet below the surface our practice of democracy is too often reduced to voting every couple of years, maybe writing pre-written emails to policy makers who will never read them, listening to media outlets that confirm our existing opinions, and losing friends on Facebook every time a new “matter of national importance” is placed before us by our politicians. Our voting behavior, the most basic and easy part of democracy, demonstrates this. In Denton, for instance, a measly 5.2 percent of the registered voters participate in city elections, while 61 percent find a way to vote when a President is on the ballot.

I first discovered Code for America through a friend who was encouraging me to push for an open data policy in Denton. He sent me the link to Jennifer Pahlka’s SXSW 2012 keynote address – there I found a voice of hope and optimism for democracy with particular reverence to the plight and possibilities of the city. I was hooked and signed-up for the 2012 Code for America Summit as soon as I could.

With very little technological chops of my own, I figured the conversation would be over my head. I went there hoping to discover a few new tools and learn from examples of success in other cities. But what I was surprised to discover among the people and discourse during those few days in San Francisco were signs of an emerging national renaissance of political and humanistic thought. Twenty-something coders were talking Ruby on Rails in one sentence and plotting their fixes for American democracy in the next. I heard graphic designers who understood their vocation in the context of restoring human dignity. I was sitting at a conference but I was observing the seeds of a revolution – the hearts of our nation’s young people were being turned back to the city.

I returned to Denton inspired and with a new-found sense of authority to initiate change. I learned from listening to other cities that policy change is best helped along when you can point to positive examples. I had already initiated the creation of a new Council Committee on Citizen Engagement, but I now had a wealth of ideas by which to develop an ambitious agenda along with my colleagues on the committee. Our first meeting began with a presentation of what I learned at the Code for America Summit.

A few months earlier I developed a Creative Economy Initiative in order to foster, create, and attract more jobs for our growing creative class. The Summit helped me connect the dots between an innovative government and a vibrant local economy – our young, smart, innovative citizens wanted and expected a smart and innovative local government. When I hosted the first Denton Creatives Mixer to kick off this initiative, I wanted the attendees to walk away feeling that their government shared their ambitions and values. So in addition to finding a way to buy everyone their first round, I teamed up with Textizen to create a unique way for everyone to sign-in, answer survey questions, and share this data with the citizens and local economic policy makers. That, in turn, inspired a small group of local geeks to develop a platform to connect the city’s digital makers with one another, in hopes of fostering collaboration and new business opportunities – CreateDenton.com was launched. I’m learning that innovation begets more innovation.

Soon after returning from the Summit, I connected the leaders of Serve Denton, an ambitious collaborative nonprofit initiative, with the Aunt Bertha team to explore implementation possibilities in our city. Within a couple of weeks, we had a computer lab filled with tech-savvy high school student volunteers inputting data from local service providers to augment this great app’s service to citizens in our zip codes.

Recently, in the lead-up to this May’s City Council elections, I was hoping to find a way to make voting information easier to understand and more accessible. I opened my home and my kegerator for two nights of hackathons with Denton’s best and brightest. Using data opened up by our city’s technology department, votedenton.org was born. This simple app not only helped our citizens, it launched a culture of civic hacking in Denton, and provided a great example for my council colleagues of the powers and possibilities of open data.

I can’t wait to get back to the Summit this year. I need more ideas and more things to do…

 

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