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Code for America Fellows & Brigades Working Together

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Being located in Code for America’s home city, the Code for San Francisco Brigade is unique. We hold our meetings in their HQ office, have face-to-face access to their Brigade support staff (hi, Hannah and Andrew), and can tap their expertise for our tech talks (thanks, Cyd). The Fellows are also available for informal conversation and – occasionally – as tech talk panelists (thanks, Jazmyn and Shelly). The Brigade Core Team has been actively looking for opportunities to leverage these advantages and distribute the results and products to other Brigades and Fellowship Teams for further iteration. A few weeks ago, Code for America 2015 Fellow Alex Soble joined us at our weekly hack night. He pitched his Somerville Team’s project and asked for help with specific challenges they’re facing from Code for San Francisco Brigade members. Then he wrote about his experience and the potential of tapping Brigade talent for CfA Fellowship projects. Specifically, he listed these ideas for future collaboration during a Fellowship assignment – an excellent start:

  • Could brigade members help fellows conduct user research?
  • Could they help us make technical decisions?
  • Build out features or extensions to fellowship projects?
  • Help us with strategy and decision-making?

Brigades can also share experience and local knowledge. Some other questions the Fellows might ask include:

  • Are any national Brigade projects in our focus area?
  • Have any Brigade members worked on local projects in our focus area?
  • What relationships have Brigade members established that could help us?

Asking questions like these early on in the fellowship could save the team tremendous amounts of precious time by maximizing the work not done.* Brigades can also support Fellowship projects in their cities after fellows have completed their assignments and disbanded. Building on the relationships established by fellows, the Brigade can iterate on the project, adding new features and maintaining datasets. And with these insights, the Brigade could spawn new projects. For example, completed Fellowship projects have been adapted by Brigades for use in their own cities. Citygram, built by the 2014 Charlotte Fellowship team, sends subscribers a text message when new data appears in their neighborhoods. The project is is now maintained by the Code for Charlotte Brigade and the Seattle, Lexington and New York Brigades have added their cities to the service. In another example, the Oakland Brigade modified a project called Answers. Originally built by the Honolulu Fellowship team (2012), it’s a natural language search engine (like Google) that returns answers to the most searched questions on the city’s website. Here’s one way of looking at the different roles: If Fellows = intense work over a defined time period, then Brigade = bursts of focused effort over an indefinite time period. It could be a perfect partnership, a win-win-win-win for Fellows, Brigade, municipality and citizens. How can we foster this cooperation?

Establish a relationship from the beginning.

As part of the Fellowship Host City selection process, Code for America notes which cities have established Brigades and if a Brigade city is chosen, both the Fellowship team and the Brigade are alerted to the opportunity to work together. This encourages the two teams to build a relationship around the project. And if the city doesn’t have an established Brigade, this is the perfect opportunity to start one!

Share tools.

Tools like GitHub repos are easy to share. Alex noted that a Brigade member had made a pull request on the Somerville project. We can build a culture where this isn’t a unique instance. And with more Brigades using Slack, the communication barriers between Fellows and Brigades are eliminated.

Announce and promote projects and hacks.

Useful (and cool) tools and hack abound but don’t get the credit they deserve. Have you seen Tomas’ GlossBot for Slack? Input an abbreviation or acronym and GlossBot returns the definition. Tyler just posted an SVG mapping app of San Francisco’s neighborhoods with rollover highlighting, hyperlinks and a road layer, ready to be hacked or used in a web app. Here are just two examples, one by a Code for America staff member, and the other by a Brigade member – how many others are we missing?

Share events.

As an example, BETA, a presentation event in the Fellows calendar, was streamed live last month. Next year, individual Brigades could host viewing parties, inviting everyone in their civic tech community to attend. CfA could display a Twitterstream, displaying Brigade comments, questions, and support in real time. It could be great way to celebrate our wins, build on our momentum, and increase our visibility in the community. So Alex, here’s a first response to your call to action. Let’s keep the conversation going.

*”Maximize the amount of work not done” is a key concept in Agile project management.

Join me and fix things that matter. Find a Brigade near you or apply to be a 2016 fellow before July 15 >