Oct. 10, 2018 5:46 pm

How to build a civic tech community, according to Pittsburgh leaders

Plus, you gotta read Open Data PGH event attendees' responses to prompts such as "I wish civic tech could be more ..." and "The future of civic tech is ..."
As we prepare to wind down this six-month project looking at civic tech in Pittsburgh, the Open Data PGH team hosted a public meetup with some of the key players in the space to look ahead.

Last Wednesday, about 75 civic tech enthusiasts gathered to hear from seven pros about:

  • How city government/libraries/universities/other institutions can better support non-technologists in using open data
  • How those groups can better collaborate and current efforts can be scaled
  • And how to convene a community around civic tech

Code & Supply was kind enough to host, and our speakers were generous with their thoughts and insights. Here are some of their major takeaways about the state of civic tech in Pittsburgh.

Bob Gradeck, project director at the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC), said a major goal of the center is to make data more accessible via data literacy events (check out the WPRDC’s Data 101 toolkit as an example). He hands out paper “Data Story” workbooks at events to help participants become comfortable with the concept of data and data uses before they ever power on their computers.


Ideas from event attendees about how to make open data more accessible were captured on notecards. The activity was led by WPRDC’s Bob Gradeck. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Ellie Newman, coordinator of strategic analysis for the CountyStats office, has a focus on making data more useful to residents. She described a familiar scenario in Allegheny County: A resident calls about a pothole but it’s not clear who’s responsible for the road: state, county or municipality. She helped launch the Who Owns My Infrastructure? project at the county to help address this problem.

(Image via Ellie Newman)

Erin Dalton from the Allegheny Department of Human Services said the organization often has sensitive data and grapples with how to make information more accessible without violating privacy.

“We worry about reidentification of clients with multiple data sets out there,” Dalton said, adding, “we have gone out of our way more than maybe anyone in the country to give clients back their own records.”

The agency uses kiosks inside homeless shelters and incorporates text message feedback to improve the accuracy of its data collection.

(Image via Erin Dalton)

Tess Wilson of the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh touted the important role of libraries in getting kids involved with using data. In addition to its civic data field guide and internship program, CLP has hosted zine-creation workshops with teenagers using real data. Wilson noted that libraries “are uniquely positioned to do this work.”

Tess Wilson. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Mike Madaio, assistant director for data projects at the entity formerly known as Students for Urban Data Systems but now called Students Using Data for Social Good (kept that SUDS acronym!), highlighted some of the group’s successes in helping willing students support community organizations, such as New Sun Rising and Remake Learning.

(Image via Michael Madaio)

Tara Matthews, senior digital services analyst for the City of Pittsburgh Department of Innovation and Performance, pointed to the city’s work with the WPRDC in making public data more accessible, pointing to its Burgh’s Eye View neighborhood data project.

(Screenshot via

Justin Reese, cofounder of Code & Supply, spoke about the importance of building a community that was open to all yet flexible enough to adapt.


We also asked event attendees questions about how to make open data more accessible, and their responses were captured on notecards. Check out some of their answers:

Working with civic data and technology makes me feel …

  • Like this is a lot of opportunity for private and public use of the data to improve lives through new products and services, commercial, nonprofit and maybe government
  • Excited to get more people involved
  • Relevant!
  • Inadequate because my data skills are atrophied
  • Knowledgeable
  • Excited, curious, hopeful

Civic data and technology help me by …

  • Informing community conversations
  • [Providing] data for masters classes
  • Informing me in an accessible way
  • Holding politicians accountable
  • Informing, empowering

I’m passionate about using civic tech and technology to …

  • Inform decisions and give people a voice in civic conversations
  • Do my job
  • Find sustainable private solutions to niche public problems
  • Create equal opportunity for everyone
  • Inform citizens on sensitive issues (mixed-income housing, development)
  • Respect all people and aspects within the city
  • Change the way things are done

I wish civic tech could be more …

  • Approachable
  • Actionable
  • Widespread around the U.S.
  • Diverse
  • Inclusive for non-programmers
  • Respectful of consumers’ time. Compensate me with money (unlikely) or public acknowledgement at an individual level (easy!)
  • Inclusive and sustainable

I want to learn how to …

  • Spur more grassroots community and civic tech links
  • Make new connections
  • Use data for fundraising
  • Work with GIS data
  • Build maps quickly from any geolocation-having dataset

I connect with other people in this community through …

  • Meetups, discussions, Slack
  • Chat services like Slack, in-person events; Twitter, Facebook, etc. are great for unidirectional statements, not collaboration
  • Meetups
  • Data Drinks
  • Journalism
  • Small group [over] six to nine months to do a project for local nonprofits with data

I would like to build relationships with …

  • Librarians
  • Angel founders
  • [I] would like to have a hub of projects with data in the region
  • People that don’t usually show up at events like this one
  • Public service orgs
  • Nonprofits and government (local) to help them with their data analysis
  • Other cities and their civic tech scenes
  • City departments that don’t yet share their data
  • People who are creating data on behalf of public agencies to ensure that ALL public data is published in a machine-processable way (no more PDFs!)

Collaboration is worth doing if …

  • There is a clear understanding of the steps or anticipated outcome
  • Everyone involved benefits in some way
  • It is mutually beneficial
  • The work is better
  • It sparks creativity

I’d love to participate in an event that …

  • Brought open data tools outside in a festival feel
  • [Is] half organizations with data and half people with interest in jumping into data
  • Involves hands-on exploring of existing data sets
  • I didn’t have to organize …
  • Could get me up and running building something or contributing to some government service that I use, with recognition for my contributions
  • Changed the world!

The future of civic tech is …

  • Vague, but exciting
  • A big part of what journalism should be
  • Collaborative and relationship-based
  • AI assistants
  • Wage!

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