CodeTheCity is a new event I’ve been pulling together with Ian, Bruce and Andrew over the past month or so. It’s a civic hacking event aiming to use principles of service design, rapid prototyping and mixed discipline group work to tackle city level challenges.

Our first event is next weekend at Aberdeen University. As I type this we are fully booked, but have a handful of visitor (drop in, rather than full weekend) tickets still available.

Participants in the 2013 Aberdeen Jam

There is lots (and lots) of good information about codethecity over at the codethecity website and wiki.

In this post I just wanted to document some of the thinking behind codethecity, and the progress so far. Especially on the back of the recent Meat Conference which encouraged folk to follow through on their side project ideas.

Background

Over the past couple of years I’ve helped organise a number of ‘hackathon’ style events. Most fun among these have been Global Service Jam and ACH13. At these events we basically filled a room with enthusiastic people, fed them some sandwiches and coffee, and helped them to jam on ideas.

The motivation for getting involved with these was primarily because I wanted to participate, but they weren’t already happening locally. If I could help a crowd of other people access these events by helping to bring them to Aberdeen then great. The benefit of the events was all about personal development though.

The things people come up with at these sessions always impresses me. So earlier this year I suggested to Ian Watt (lead organiser of the ACH13 event) that another Aberdeen hack would be timely during the summer.

I don’t know if it’s the upcoming independence vote, or if it’s the boys becoming more questioning of the wider world, but I’ve been more aware of the ability of coders to ‘do good’ recently. Could I can achieve the same personal development benefits for attendees while actually having some civic impact?

At the start of May a small group of us met up to discuss the possibility of a civic hacking event. An event centred around open data, and around social / civic challenges at a city wide scale. Hacks wouldn’t be aiming to create businesses, or to be thrown away – they’d be aiming to improve lives. We left that early morning meeting with a solid picture of the constraints we wanted to apply to the project, some candidate dates, and a number of tasks to follow up on.

Why CodeTheCity?

Any new event or initiative needs to have a good reason to exist.

Particularly in a world with so many existing projects in this general space, why didn’t we just adopt a model from elsewhere and do the Aberdeen version. Are we egomaniacs?

I started Refresh in Aberdeen, based on an established model elsewhere. I helped bring CodeRetreat.org to Aberdeen, and help put on Global Service Jam Aberdeen. So I’ve had reasonable experience of taking an existing model and landing it locally. Nothing existing felt like a perfect match for what we were trying to create, so we started with a blank sheet of paper.

Articulating the reasons why we started something new is a challenge, especially in a concise digestible, efficient manner. So you’ll excuse me if I investigate some of the underlying reasoning here while we attempt to distil something of a draft manifesto for codethecity. Consider it rubber duck blogging.

First Principles – Manifesto

These principles haven’t been formalised, and are very much my first draft that we’ll be looking at over the coming weeks. As we discuss them some may come or go. They should give a feel for the kind of event we’re trying to create, though.

Open and Free to attend

Codethecity Aberdeen is free to attend, and I’d like all CodeTheCity events to be similarly open. Anyone can register, no one should be excluded because of qualifications or ability to pay. Sponsorship should be distributed, so that no one organisation is ‘running the show’, but sponsors should be recognised and thanked prominently.

Non profit

No one should profit from running a CodeTheCity. Asking people to volunteer their time for a weekend for the good of their city has a very different feel if someone is making money from the exercise.

Independent

We have tremendous local authority support for CodeTheCity Aberdeen, but this isn’t a ‘council event’. It’s being organised by a grass roots collection of individuals from business, education and local government with a shared interest in making life better. I’d strongly encourage any other cities running a CodeTheCity to involve local government early, as their support is invaluable in many areas.

Broad attendee base

To avoid a tech bubble effect, organisers should aim to encourage both coders and non-coder service experts to attend. I’ll expand on this below.

Open data

The production and use of open data is at the heart of many ideas we’re looking at within CodeTheCity. We’re not limited to projects involving open data, but where appropriate, the openness of data is a primary consideration. Organisers should try to ensure that some open data expertise is available to participants on the weekend.

More than just apps

We should be as interested in creating datasets, creating arguments for projects, creating basic data ‘plumbing’, as we are in creating new apps. These infrastructure and conceptual projects may not be as immediately impressive, but can have significant impact, and can be achievable in short timescales.

 Autonomous teams, well supported

Teams are free to work on the problems that they select. Organisers can propose ideas, but if a team picks a new idea and decides to work on it, they are free to do so. It should obviously relate to the event in some way, but as long as it could broadly be considered ‘civic hacking’ the organisers should support it.

City level

Where possible, projects should focus on a city level. An idea that could apply to a sports club should be examined to see if it can apply to all sports clubs in the city. Or better yet, all clubs in the city.

Share, share, and share again

Showing your working, documenting your research, and sharing your process is as important as open sourcing your code. It makes it easier for other teams to pick up your work and improve it.

  • Free to attend, supported by sponsorship
  • Leave your agenda at the door, but bring your experience and expertise
  • Data wants to be open, where possible
  • Services should be as general as possible – don’t fix a problem for community centres, fix it for ‘venues’
  • Document and share your work

First Principles – Attendees

I really want to bring the Global Service Jam mixed discipline team approach to CodeTheCity. The core idea is that by bring two key groups of people together into a room to work together for a weekend we can create great things. Those two broad groups are:

  • Coders
  • Designers
  • Data people
  • Writers
  • Illustrators
  • Photographers

and

  • Service users
  • Service providers / managers
  • Government
  • Facilities managers

These two (very) broad groups are often very active and passionate as groups, but rarely mix as directly as we hope they will at CodeTheCity. Creating project teams with a mix of people from both groups should, we hope, lead to interesting results.

Many people in group one will rarely come in contact with the kinds of challenges we’ll face at CodeTheCity, typically working on more ‘corparate’ projects. Having the second group present and able to lend genuine expertise and insight should help ensure projects are founded in reality.

I find this incredibly exciting. If we can make this work, I think the results could be genuinely impactful.

What does ‘City Level’ mean?

When I talk of ‘city level challenges’ I’m just trying to focus the efforts of the event, and clarify who we are trying to benefit.

One of the ideas put forward to codethecity early on was a system to allow a specific support group to create individual event calendars for their service users. By shifting this problem up to ‘city level’ it can be reframed as a system to allow anyone to create a specific event calendar based on a shared high quality data set. This could benefit service users with additional needs, or tech folk trying to share a calendar with their workmates, or a school sharing kids activities for the holidays.

This is likely to lead to a project with bigger potential impact, and with wider general support.

Most importantly though, it should lead to a project with multiple backers and benficiaries.

When a single organisation stands to benefit, that organisation is more likely to adopt the ‘owner’ or ‘client’ role in the project. This can cause tension in a fundamentally open source project, where the default interaction should be peer collaboration, rather than client / provider. Such tension can, at best, slow things down. At worst it can drain enthusiasm from contributors and stagnate a project.

I really hope that CodeTheCity projects can deliver some real results, and I think this is an important consideration in achieving that.

On Side Projects

For anyone reading this that has thought about side projects since The Meat the other week, I thought it worth covering a few other aspects of the project.

Naming is always hard

Coming up with a name for an event (or anything) is always a challenge. Being the ‘marketing guy’ on the team I had to come up with something appropriate. I started sketching ideas and searching for domain names. I couldn’t believe that the domain and twitter handle were both available for “Code the city”. I should do this for a living!

The thinking was pretty straightforward when looking at names. Here are my notes from that page of my moleskine:

  • Don’t use ‘hack’ or variants
  • Like ‘hack the government’ and ‘code for america’ – three. it’s the magic number.
  • software / code / coder / coding / tech / make / write
  • Aberdeen / People / Services / Town / City / Good
  • Don’t use Aberdeen – make the name generic – easy to prepend / append city name
  • code the city – AVAILABLE – [ ] MORNING TEST!

The ‘morning test’ note simply tells me to revisit this idea in the morning. The days of my registering domain names on the day that I think of them are long gone. Code The City passed the morning test, so I registered a domain and twitter account. Decision made.

 Things CAN move quickly

Within four or five days of that initial coffee meeting we had a name, a domain name, firm date, twitter account, eventbrite page taking bookings and some leads on sponsorship. Within a fortnight we had 20 people signed up, sponsorship in place, and a wiki filling up with ideas from the community. When you get stuck in, things can happen pretty quickly.

There is always time

Organising an event of this kind from a train seat is pretty much possible. I have a half hour, twice a day, where I have a laptop, limited wifi, and usually a desk. Writing emails, designing schedules, organising lunch, contacting sponsors, designing posters and name badges – all of this can be done in small chunks from the ‘comfort’ of a scotrail train.