Civic News

The latest iteration of Code for Pittsburgh is building a more collaborative community of civic technologists

The local Code for America brigade is celebrating National Day of Civic Hacking by crowdsourcing web mapping services for disaster response. Here's how the group has changed since its 2014 founding.
The 2018 National Day of Civic Hacking, a “nationwide day of action that brings together civic leaders, local governments, and community organizations to tackle some of our toughest challenges,” is Thursday, Aug. 16.

Code for Pittsburgh (CfP) is planning to go big this year, with an open-to-all hackathon working with the Humanitarian Open StreetMap Team (HOT). Participants can help HOT’s efforts to crowdsource web mapping services for disaster response and communities in need around the world.

“We’re excited about this event because people of all skills levels can participate and make a difference, potentially even helping to save lives by editing and improving maps of disaster areas,” said CfP co-leader Ellie Newman. “Once you realize how easy it is to participate in the project, literally anytime you’re sitting around bored you can just log on and work on a map. Hopefully, this will train a new crew of people in Pittsburgh to contribute to the effort.”

The event marks the first big undertaking by CfP since Newman and co-leader Melinda Angeles took the helm earlier this year. And although it hasn’t always followed a straight line, the brigade’s Meetup group is just shy of 1,000 members, with plans for more big projects in the months to come.

In its first iteration, Pittsburgh’s Code for America brigade was called Open Pittsburgh, a deliberate attempt at signaling inclusion, said founder Bob Gradeck.

“We wanted to sort of denote that it was more than just code or coding,” said Gradeck, who now heads the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. “It was more about, ‘Hey, let’s do some data analysis'” — but someone else in a different field already was using the name Open Pittsburgh and wasn’t interested in giving it up.

The brigade started around the time that Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto took office and city officials were pushing for better access to city data, Gradeck said, and by late 2014 had gained some traction.

"The ecosystem wasn't as supportive as it is now."
Bob Gradeck, Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center

“The goal was to create some degree of civic engagement among people with data or technology background,” Gradeck said, as preparations for launching WPRDC were beginning to happen. “It wasn’t just about doing projects, but it was really about getting to know each other.”

In the beginning, he added, there weren’t a lot of options where brigade participants could sit and work together on projects: “The ecosystem wasn’t as supportive as it is now, so when we started it was a lot of just doing presentations. It was hard to translate that energy into projects.”

But with Code & Supply’s space opening this year and a partnership with the Carnegie Libraries, those spaces do exist now locally and are much more conducive to collaboration, Gradeck said.

“I think you’re going to see more projects like the fish fry map, where people have space to work and space to build relationships around it,” he said.

The fish fry map is perhaps the group’s best-known work: In 2016, Hollen Barmer, a staffer at the Emerging Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, came to Code for Pittsburgh’s then-leader Connor Sites-Bowen, who helped turn her Google Map into an interactive display of Lenten fish frys around the area.

The brigade has also produced police blotters of crime data in Allegheny County and built past successful events around bicycle safety data and dog license data.

“We have a broad member base, and we know that different events draw different people,” Newman said. The organizers have been heartened by the number of people who come without any experience with data, who just want to get their feet wet and know they have something to offer.

"Nothing is more frustrating than putting a lot of work into getting a dataset out there and then no one uses it or does anything with it."
Ellie Newman, Code for Pittsburgh

As far as what brings people back a second and third time, that’s been a little less clear, Angeles said.

“We do have people who aren’t recurring members because of their busy lives, but who might still be interested,” she said.

But Gradeck said he didn’t see it as problematic that some events are more likely to draw a big crowd than others.

“Putting expectations on this kind of stuff, that you’re going to have a bunch of volunteers show up and create something that’s going to be lasting with this gigantic impact? I don’t think that’s the thing you should measure,” he said. “I think it’s more important to measure the level of engagement around these things and the community that you build along the way.”

Newman and Angeles said they’re planning more events in the coming months, including some with food insecurity startup 412 Food Rescue. Angeles said she attended the Code for America conference to meet people from other brigades, and plans to build on those connections to collaborate more.

“I think we will have closer ties to other places around the Northeast area, but that’s still kind of a new thing for us,” she said.

For her part, Newman said she wanted to be part of Code for Pittsburgh because of her work in her day job as a CountyStats analyst for Allegheny County.

“I got involved because part of my work at the county is managing the open data program,” Newman said. “Nothing is more frustrating than putting a lot of work into getting a dataset out there and then no one uses it or does anything with it. I wanted to take a more active role in figuring out what the community wanted.”

Anyone with a laptop can attend Code for Pittsburgh’s National Day of Civic Hacking event at Code & Supply in Friendship tomorrow, Aug. 16, from 6 to 9 p.m. Bonus: Snacks will be served. 

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