Twin Cities Unconference & Hackathon: Where technology meets civic engagement

Ealier this month I attended CityCampMN 2013 –an unconference and hackfest sponsored by E-Democracy and OpenTwinCities. It was a two-day event. Day One focused on discussing issues, ideas and solutions on civic issues – as defined by attendees through an Open Space process. Day Two was a hackfest – where a subgroup from the previous day gathered to see what they could do to create solutions to issues raised earlier – generally using technology.

I really enjoyed the weekend! Because I would love to see this sort of event happen in smaller communities, and I know Blandin is working on that too, I thought I’d share notes both on the topics and logistics of the event. This might get a little long – I’ll try to organize my thoughts…

Day One – Unconference

Attendees – a wide range of people attendees the event – especially on day one – from teens to seniors, men and women, lots of different native languages… People came from the private, public and nonprofit sectors and there was a heavy media presence – as participants.



Introductions – everyone introduced themselves by giving name, location, affiliation and 3 words to describe yourself. It was quick but it gave a nice overview of who was there and helped spark potential connections.

Introduce Open Space and Topics – attendees are invited to introduce topics they would like to discuss during the day. Folks come into the day knowing they will have this opportunity. I suspect some come with ideas and some are spurred by others. Once the ideas are all shared, the planners gather them up, organize them (some get combined) and schedule a time and place for the conversations to happen

The Ignite Sessions – while the planners work their magic, the attendees view a series of quick, high energy planned Ignite presentations.

Open Space Session – there were three rounds of discussions and a lunch. You can get notes on each session – or check out the quick list below. During each session, there are informal leaders who facilitate the discussion and note takers. Otherwise the idea is to listen, share and stay on topic if that’s what makes sense.

  • Making Government Data Useful to Communities of Color
  • ·How do you address community issues using technology?
  • Citizen Engagement for Twin Cities Neighborhoods
  • Online donations
  • Open Source Organizations and Government Entities
  • How do you put together an unconference or a hackathon?
  • Free access to technology
  • Face-to-Face Networks as a Technology
  • Open Source GED test
  • How to side-step elected officials to move government forward
  • Visualizing and gamifying economic, transportation and quality of life data.
  • Drupal in the City/How to design websites
  • How Can Cities Best Communicate Parks & Recreation Opportunities?
  • Fighting Crime (Human Trafficking) with Data
  • The fall of money, the economy of tomorrow
  • Free resources for youth classes in STEM
  • Code for Neighbors Vicini Project
  • Energy Information and Mapping
  • Making Digital Connections Personal
  • What are the most valuable data sets? 311?
  • Social Power and Technology for Digital Inclusion
  • New Ways of Voting, How to get to 100% Participation
  • Organizing through the Arts
  • Cross platform productivity tools for professionals

At the end of the day, each session reports out. And as a special treat, there was a reception to celebrate Steve Clift and E-Democracy on the Champion of Change award, originally presented to them at the White House.

Day Two – Hackfest

Attendees – This was a smaller subgroup from the previous day. The crowd tended to be younger – although age the range was teen to 70+. Women were definitely in the minority. Some people were super techie, some were kind of techie, some weren’t at all. Some people came to the event with a mission in mind, some just wanted to sign up for something that looked interesting. Most people seemed genuinely interested in coding for good. Most, but not all, had attended the Unconference.

Introductions – Everyone introduced themselves. The planners discussed the flow for the day and set reasonable expectations. They paid a lot of respect to the iterative process. The goal of the day was to move the ball further down the field – that might mean a score (creating an app) that might be preparing for an assist (getting the specs together for an app) that might mean drafting the right team.

Introduction of Topics – Attendees were invited to suggest a project/idea to hack. The other attendees chose their hack project  by hooking up with the person to called the topic. Groups formed, found space and got started.

Agenda – The day was spent mostly working in small groups. We got a presentation on a technology platform. We got pizza. We convened and provided project updates once. Most people worked in their groups most of the time – but there was crossover collaboration as well. One of our group members worked for the Parks – so he was poached by a group interested in Parks – at least for a while.

I find working in these ad hoc groups to be very energizing! In my experience they are very collegial. All talents are respected and used. I think they work best when everyone feels like they can contribute – especially when the contribution is – Hey guys, we’re wasting too much time on XYZ, let’s get back to… The groups that attended this session were varied. One group was meeting for the second time to finish a project started at the Hackfest in June. One leader had a very specific and finite mission to the group hit the ground running. Our group had a more nebulous goal and much broader vision. I feel like a learned a lot, I contributed some and our group has at least emailed a couple times to follow up with the project.

Here are some of the proposed hack projects – pulled from Tweets from the day:

  • Possible Hack Topic 1: How lack of resources affects achievement gap
  • Possible Hack Topic 2: localized data puller – pull legacy data from multiple systems into a single place
  • Possible Hack Topic 3: getting voters informed in a more structured way
  • Possible Hack Topic 4: parent mapping tool – data parents want when choose home/school/et al
  • Possible Hack Topic 5: renewable electricity info mapping and online tours
  • Possible Hack Topic 6: measuring informal usage of facilities – IE pickup basketball games
  • Possible Hack Topic 7: gamification projects
  • Possible Hack Topic 8: location dependent public services, based on local geography – tapping into location to provide service
  • Possible Hack Topic 9: Preventing human trafficking – they came up with a cool site:
  • Possible Hack Topic 10: creating an uber community calendar
  • Possible Hack Topic 11: public investment is subject to requirements (hire women/minority owned bus) – can we track?
  • Possible Hack Topic 12: Rank choice voting – took longer to declare a winner because of need for certified counting systems.

I think these events help encourage civic engagement – but they also build a sense of community among a group that can be powerful when channeled!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s