Civic News

Read Laurenellen McCann’s #CivicTech manifesto

A plan for civic hackers to work with (not for) the communities they seek to help.

In her #CivicTech manifesto, Laurenellen McCann's lays out a civic hacking playbook.

(Photo courtesy of Laurenellen McCann)

Laurenellen McCann, the D.C. activist who took the Code for America Summit by storm with a fiery speech on civic tech’s “trickle-down” approach, is at it again. (We had an excerpt of it in last month’s Podcast, too.)
In Crafting #CivicTech, a manifesto published Monday, she offers some solutions to civic tech’s “existential crisis:” How can hackers work with — and not for — the communities they want to serve, in order to help in a relevant way?
McCann came up with a four-part plan of action for civic hackers mounting projects in D.C. and beyond. It goes something like this:

  • Step 1: “Define what you’re working on.”
  • Step 2: “Identify the people and organizations related to your work.” In other words, find local stakeholders.
  • Step 3: “Identify preliminary, potential roles that your community will play.”
  • Step 4: “Outreach. The real work. The good stuff.”

This process is nothing new, she said — and it would serve civic hackers well to acknowledge that they’re not pioneers in the realm of social activism.
“We’ve had social innovation since well before we started dropping openness language,” she told DC. In fact, McCann herself was inspired by her father, who organized land trusts all around Connecticut with a “light touch.”
“I’m just doing what my dad did,” said McCann. “But for data and technology.”
To be successful, she writes, a project must go through four phases: ideation, design, development and iteration. (All are very well fleshed out in her post.)
And the communities and players who stand to be affected by the project should be involved in all four phases of implementation.
“We’re all looking at the same puzzle,” she said. The trick is to “zoom in on problems that make it small and actionable.”
The plan of action was developed during the DC Day of Civic Hacking workshop on Oct. 19.

The plan was brainstormed during the DC Day of Civic Hacking, Oct. 19. (Photo courtesy of Laurenellen McCann)

One Code for DC team that had already worked closely with community organization Bread for the City plans on testing out McCann’s strategy.
It’s Marcus Louie’s Mega App, a project to streamline certain housing applications into a single PDF.
In her post, McCann also hints that Code for DC might soon roll out a more focused civic hacking strategy: “this is not (yet) official Code for DC policy,” she writes.
The idea is to clearly define two tracks for civic hacking:


  • Tinkering, where coders can get their creative juices flowing in a “safe space.”
  • Official projects: community-focused tools that should be developed with the input of local stakeholders from day one.

McCann wants to dispel the idea that tinkering can by itself drive social change. “I get nervous over excitement with things we have just been tinkering with,” she said.

Tinkering, from left to right: Leah Bannon, Aliya Rahman and Angie Brilliance. (Photo by Sandra Moscoso Mills)

“Just because we can invent civic-feeling stuff on our own for others,” she writes, “should we?” But — and that’s the purpose of her plan — “that doesn’t mean we can’t help.”

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