Drink Tank: Lexington and the new Town Hall

Don't get us wrong, we're crazy about Chicago, but on June 5 we decided it was time for a change of scenery. We drove 735 miles to Lexington, Kentucky, to partner with the fine folks who work with OpenLexington and the city's open data to help bring a fresh perspective to this year's National Day of Civic Hacking (#hackforhange).

Wait? What is this National Day of Civic Hacking?

Ah, good question. National Day of Civic Hacking is organized by Code for America and happens nationwide in June. It was created so that developers, designers, government employees, organizers, and anyone with a passion for her community can collaborate to build useful tools to improve it.

This year we partnered with  Erik SchwartzMike Dillion, and Chase Southard to shake things up in Lexington. Turns out that not only do these guys know how to code and mobilize the developer community for civic good, they also know a thing or two about moving chairs and opening beer bottles. As luck would have it, we turned out to be the Dream Team of Collaboration. 

To kick off this partnership we first hopped on a phone call to understand their current process and challenges. Specifically, these guys wondered: 

1) How might we get non-technical people involved and make them feel welcome? 

2) How might we use this event to maintain the momentum for civic good in Lexington? 

The Drink Tank Community Accelerator 

We started with the users, not the code.  Remember the healthcare.gov debacle? It's hard to forget. The policy was considered a failure because the website didn't work: Users around the country clamored to signup on the new site but were unable to signup for health insurance. Increasingly, policy and the technology that powers it are interchangeable. For technology (or government) to work it needs to be designed with the user in mind. 

We asked questions. We themed this event around the idea of connecting citizens to local government resources. We started the day by asking participants to think of a question they have for local Lexington government that they don't know how to answer. We upvoted the ideas and questions as a group, and broke into teams to get to work. 

"In contrast to last year where we let people divide up in to prescribed groups with predetermined focus areas.  We spent the morning exploring questions/issues/ideas we'd liked answered. After voting for the best 4 ideas, we devoted our afternoon to working on them. A number of participants expressed their pleasure about the format this year." – Chase Southard

We included research as part of the solution design.  We encouraged event organizers to invite subject-matter experts from social workers, to educators, to community organizers. Teams spent time talking to users, researching existing solutions, and mapping pain points and user journeys.   

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We made the solutions easy to understand: At the end of the day teams came back together to share progress, but this time we added a twist: Teams had to act out interactions with their solutions and explain their designs without using any code. 

"At the end of the day we presented our resource directory as part of a skit. The power of live theatre can never be underestimated." – Erik Schwartz

We ended with cheers (and beers).  

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We had fun, Lexington. See you next year.

Additional Thanks & Parting Thoughts 

  • BuildWith for being our new wikipedia / index of inspiring links related to civic hacking
  • PublicGood and Jason Kunesh, who remind us to think about using tech as a smart way to capture (rather than impede) a person's instinct to help. 
  • Michler's Cafe and Beer Garden for being a beautiful place to celebrate a solid day of solutioneering with new friends. 
  • The Write Club and Longform (Ann Friedman episode) podcasts for the making the miles fly by (without a single speeding ticket).
  • Spotify for providing access to our favorite sing along songs
  • The 7-11 for providing hats that made our heads look awesome, and the trip feel shorter. 
  • Margaret Mead, for saying,"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”