On Friday, November 18, 2011, the inaugural class of Code for America fellows were released back into the world. This applies to the Code for America fellow who has spearheaded the CityGroups project: me, Chacha.
It’s a funny thing to end a project just as it is getting started. But have no fear, there’s a plan.
The West Seattle Block Watch Captain’s Network is going to moderate all of the new Block Watch Group submissions. So far there are 27 that have been listed for West Seattle. This is super exciting. Block Watch Directory.
Chach plans to continue to be involved with this project as a leader, driver, founder. She has an exciting new job as a community liaison for an open source project. This is a part time job, so if funds can be raised to continue development on CityGroups, then more will happen with it in a more timely manner.
What will hopefully and probably happen is this
Between November and January 2012, we will create a space for all of the various people who have expressed interest in the project. This will probably include a forum, a mailing list, a calendar, information about who is doing what, and some sort of steering committee. We’ll identify people in cities that want CityGroups to be city liaisons. We’ll define volunteer roles. We’ll have more code sprints. We’ll work on bugs. We’ll find money for the hosting for 2013.
There will probably be some training videos made.
We’ll work on the administrator and moderator experience.
We’ll reach out to more neighborhoods and get more groups listed.
Chach actually lives in California, so eventually she’ll start getting community groups for her own hometown.
We’ll probably define a civic schema for community resources, and help get some more community groups into the Google Places API.
We’ll probably integrate with something like Fusion Tables to do some rapid code cleanup.
We’ll set up our social media properly.
We’ll probably do a Kickstarter campaign.
We’ll fix some of the funny looking design elements on the site and improve the layout.
We’ll make comment guidelines.
We’ll work on the instructions for setting up the codebase.
We’ll make a development sandbox so people can test out the tool.
We’ll refine the data fields.
We’ll work with public libraries to provide positive experiences for people new to the neighborhood, especially renters.
Working on improving the multilingual features.
Develop a collaboration model for city governments to support and advise the project.
Continue to improve the community group categories.
Improve the map experience.
Set up Facebook page.
Experiment with connecting community group data to maps like Open 311 and Crime Maps.
There’s lots of stuff to do.
This is an open source project — like all open source projects, if you want to see it get better faster — you can always kick in some resources.
Resource that would be helpful include…
Documentation, grant writing, testing the installation, Kickstarter campaigning, video making, content editing, community management, Drupalling, community outreach, funding, training moderators, sponsorships, coding, design, and giving feedback.
I expect that the project will grow slowly during the first half of 2012, and then hopefully we’ll find some funding to continue to grow the project into a tool that serves our communities well.
I think we would be in a good place if, by this time next year, CityGroups has a process to serve a few cities, and can continue to grow to meet the needs of people in cities.
I had a big surprise today when I went to administer the CityGroups Seattle site. I checked to see how many spambots had attacked the site — and learned that there were only 10 comments — and half of them were actually from people in Seattle who were helping to make the directory better.
This is without any outreach except maybe blogging about the project and telling people that we have a data collection projects for mapping Block Watch Groups. If anything, I have been more quiet about the project because my Code for America fellowship ended, and we are in a stage where we need to figure out Phase Two.
The wonderful thing — the comments are just like what I had hoped might happen — that community members could correct or improve the data, comment on experiences, and connect with people near them who share similar problems.
The comments cover a number of different problems.
Here, the person commenting improves data about a mismatch of services. What’s super interesting to me is that this is a comment about a residential crisis center. This comment actually made me cry. I mean, what if that sort of yelp-like experience did actually improve our ability to navigate community resources? Like Frank Hebbert said, this isn’t Yelp — but I would bet anything that Seattle residents who now use Facebook, blogs, google maps reviews and yelp are familiar enough with leaving comments, that the idea of leaving a note about a place or resource is well understood.
Similarly, we would be able to leverage what we now know about moderating content about places and restaurants to improve our local information about community groups.
So anyone who works for the public good knows that sometimes you do not ever get a lot of feedback on your work, and certainly not public feedback. So this comment is interesting because the commentator is saying that they used this resource when they were younger.
I am really glad that I left the comment fields on, because I realized that people who might not want to sign in can still leave a note about incorrect data. If you notice in my comment, I’m encouraging the commentator to improve the data. I actually had not been collecting the emails of the commentators, so I can’t email them back, but I’ve just turned on the email field (which will be collected, but not visible to anyone except site administrators.)
This is an exciting behavior because the whole point of this project was to be a distributed data collection tool.
So this is a ‘structured wiki’ — I know there are some semantic wikis (which I haven’t tried) — and to be honest I wish I knew more about structured wikis — but basically this whole project is a social interface to a dataset of community groups, with lots of metadata.
A lot of emphasis is placed on cities making CSV files available, and in the case of CityGroups, we started with two datasets from data.seattle.gov. But we all know that any of the fields in a dataset can get out of date. I think that tools like DataCouch and Fusion Tables are really helpful for people who are doing big dataset cleanups (like capitalizing words, or otherwise normalizing data) — however, for communities, no one is going to install any software (or, perhaps, even log in to a website) — but they can leave a comment on one particular datapoint.
In this comment, a citizen registers a complaint about a behavior problem and public safety issue. Personally, I am unclear about if this is related to the Chamber of Commerce (and I don’t even live in Seattle) — and if the Chamber of Commerce has a comment page, they should be notified of this issue.
But the point of this web project is to help people get involved in solving local problems. A concrete task would be to see if there are similar community groups working on that issue, and make that information available.
I do think that there are probably some issues that would require more knowledge to respond — and this sort of issue will require a little bit more explicit policy for anyone who does moderation.
So it’s a little more clear to me now that it would be possible to improve the comment system. This will probably start up again in January 2012 — as this project will be on a bit of a hiatus over the holiday season (unless someone volunteers.)
Also, if this directory does seem useful, it would be great if Seattle wanted to help do a Kickstarter campaign so that we can work on the many many features (of which this blog post now adds even more)
We only really have this blog right now for commenting on features and how we’ll work together. We discussed making a governance group. This is likely will pick up in January 2012.
But I have a lot of hope about how this can go. So long as the Seattle community is patient and works together to be constructive in improving the experience and usefulness of the information, I think we’ll be OK.
Proposed method for handling comments on the site
1. Ask some Seattle residents to volunteer to moderate comments. Would probably be 15 minutes a week to moderate a few comments.
2. Create a comment policy. Research some comment policies and adopt good strategies. Such as - no spam, no abusive incendiary language, no troll behaviors.
And for this project — adding a few other items:
* Comments should relate to groups in some way.
* Requests or complaints should be directed back towards identifying local community groups that deal with the similar problem.
* In general, comments should be constructive & positive. They should improve the overall information.
* We might want threaded comments.
* Moderators should have public profiles.
* Commentator should get an email saying their comment was published - with a thank you and information on getting involved.
* Comments should be not-approved by default - and we should make sure that people who comment are notified that their comment will be reviewed be volunteer moderators and published.
* We would need some templates for responses.
* Moderators could get training. Perhaps local businesses would give moderators a treat??? :)
* Rejected comments (that are not spam) should get an explanation & be pointed to the guidelines.
* We should have a page tracking comments & data improvements.
* There could be a video showing what happens when people log-in — that they can fix the data.
* Periodically we should make sure that comments are quality and generally accurate.
CityGroups Weekend for Bay Area Urban Agriculture
October 8, 2011
Code Sprint & Public Design Workshop at Code for America Offices
85 2nd Street (at Mission), San Francisco
10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
October 9, 2011
Community Graphics Installations at and around Hayes Valley Farm
450 Laguna (at Fell), San Francisco
12 p.m. - 5 p.m.
We would like to invite you to a unique little software & design event in which we launch a public directory of urban agriculture community groups for the Bay Area.
Free. Please register on Eventbrite.
(See also groups.drupal.org page)
CityGroups is a platform for creating public directories of community groups. CityGroups was developed as a Code for America project, to help community mapping projects in Seattle. We are working now in several cities to find ways to pool resources together to make this a sustainable, adaptable & persistent solution to serve all city residents.
CityGroups is an open source project built with Drupal. It provides community groups data through an API, which allows the information to be used in multiple contexts.
On the web:
Design for Public Space
As part of this sprint, we will also work on designing neighborhood graphics for community groups, with the Hayes Valley Farm as our subject. The idea is to create graphics that can make local community groups more visible in our neighborhoods.
The Hayes Valley Farm is located at Fell & Laguna, and many people in the neighborhood see the farm and want to check out the farm, but never get around to it (though thousands of others volunteer at and talk about this farm internationally.)
What kinds of public design (especially signs and informational community boards) can we create encourage people to check out the farm, and what kinds of design elements would make the farm inviting to regular pedestrians? We hope to build understanding about similar principles that we can use to adapt for promoting Farmer’s Markets, Parks, Community Gardens, other civic spaces and opportunities. http://hayesvalleyfarm.com
The Problem We Are Trying to Solve
Imagine a world in which a search for ‘urban agriculture’ would actually provide a balanced list of groups working for urban agriculture, community gardening, food groups and other small groups in the Bay Area - even if those communities were on different communication hubs - websites, blogs, Facebook, Meetups, or in real places in a neighborhood.
The way it is right now, everyone is spending hours searching the Internet and maintaining separate databases of the useful information they are finding. There is no public shared resource to make this easier to network groups. We are working to solve this problem by making this data more open, accessible & reusable.
What will we do?
On Saturday we will do work mostly indoors (talking, computing, drawing), and on Sunday we will work at & around the Hayes Valley Farm.
October 8, 2011
Saturday at Code for America Offices 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
(schedule is subject to change)
- Meet & Greet
- Quick presentations about Community Signs, CityGroups & various Urban Agriculture communities in the Bay Area
- Team Creation (facilitated group building activity)
- Project time (see list of project ideas)
Goal for Saturday
Move the issue of access to public information about Urban Agriculture groups in the Bay Area forward.
Who should come?
Urban Farmers, Developers, Drupallers, Neighborhood organizers, Community Gardeners, Urban Agriculturalists, Permaculturists, Designers, Sign-makers, Guerrilla Grafters, Map Nerds, Urban Planners
What to bring
- Laptops if you have them
- Sign & Stencil making supplies
- Examples of interesting public informational graphics or inspirational public art
- Lists of Urban Agriculture organizations & small community groups
- Friends who might want to participate, have them also sign up on Eventbrite.
October 9, Sunday
Hayes Valley Farm
12 - 5 p.m.
(schedule is subject to change)
- Turning Compost
- Tour of the Farm
- Installing situational graphics in & around the neighborhood.
- Photo documenting resources
- User testing & Interviews
What to bring/wear
- Sturdy shoes
- Sunblock, water.
- You’ll be outside. You might get a little dirty.
Check out the Hayes Valley Farm website for more information.
Sign up / Register
The event is free:
- groups.drupal.org (coming soon)
Things that can happen because we do this sprint
- Promote a way to provide information about urban agriculture groups to many people who need up to date information.
- Develop a data trade between urban agriculture & a community that wants urban agriculture.
- Make better community graphics.
- Build neighborhood resilience by helping people connect more easily.
Some Project Ideas
- Design: Signs for the directory of groups
- Design: Signs promoting kinds of groups
- Geek: Focus on making a new module to theme the urban agriculture page
- Strategy: Writing a statement about why the directory is useful & how it can be used
- Geek: Email verification
- Data: Add data to the site
- Geek: Scrape old websites that have useful information
This is my comment to our All-Day Sprint in Boston:
Here is an update on what happened at the Sprint, as well as some of the other stuff that has happened since September 6.
We had great people there
I just want to thank everyone for coming. We had about 15 people, which I heard is a very good turnout for a Drupal sprint in Boston. We had technical folks & non-technical community organizers there, and I want to thank everyone for being part of one of the very first community sprints to launch a Drupal product for a city.
Facilitated Group Projects
What was really great about the sprint we had was that we did this activity, facilitated by Ben Sheldon, (with post-it notes) where people figured out what they wanted to work on - by talking. This is very different from what happens at regular code sprints, where you show up and rifle through the issue queue.
I’ve tried similarly in a remote situation by having short Skype calls with potential volunteers, which worked well.
Projects people started
We had a list of potential features to give an idea of what is possible - and I was completely impressed by the range & diversity of technical & non-technical projects that everyone was interested in doing. These were all very fun tasks - like practicing cloning a git repository, RDF integration, researching node.js to see how it fits with Drupal, documenting a data standard, figuring out what kind of datasets were already available in Boston, shape based geographic search, launching the project, user profiles, defining the geographic region, performance testing, thinking about the code sprint development sandbox experience, figuring out community site administration & more.
Of course, this was a sprint from 11-6pm, with about half that time talking & getting up to speed on the project. This is often that case with sprints, where you think you can get further in one day than you really can. But it is important to understand that the nature of the in-person collaborations are valuable & long-term. It’s not just the code.
I would be curious to hear other people’s impressions of how having a facilitated experience changed the nature of participation in the code sprint. From my perspective - it was deeply interesting because, true to my own Drupal is Legos and I want all the Legos tendencies, I had previously thought of lots of potential features… so it was fun to do this with everyone, and see which Legos they wanted to play with. The ideas that everyone had filled in the full spectrum of what needed to get done in order to launch CityGroups for Boston - and we did make a lot of progress that week in terms of covering technical, non-technical and ‘local stakeholder’ outreach.
The sprint pointed out major holes in documentation, configuration & UX
Technically, bringing the Drupal product to a sprint improved it by leaps and bounds - much more than waiting a year and then releasing the product, only to learn that your moderators have needs and you need to build more stuff. The product is still beta & as such as weird behaviors (and I opened up the development process very early for exactly this reason. Please see webchick’s famous post arguing against perfection & embracing the chaos ;) - and then also see Calagator’s social development blog. The CityGroups blog is here.
In Drupal at least, uncovering the bugs & developing solid user experiences are very important - so I would really recommend this process for anyone who has a Drupal product that is meant to be used by communities & citizens. I feel like an old-fashioned open source advocate saying this, but I really believe it. :)
It was also really interesting to see what happens when you bring a Drupal product to a Code Sprint - I noticed that all of the sudden, 15 developers need Google API keys, and of course if there’s no instance to work on, then most people will work in Google Docs or in the Github wiki. Because of the sprint, I added a better dashboard - which has links to the site configurations that are necessary. For anyone who has installed Open Public, you can see that they did a really great job with the dashboard & site setup, so now it’s much easier to tailor the Drupal instance for a city or special project.
Remote Sprints = good idea
Maybe what we can do is to plan a series of remote sprints, in conjunction with some in-person sprints in cities that are committed to making this project happen. I can imagine that if we were to incorporate a remote sprint, that it would be handy to see if we can use Google Hangout or Skype so that participants can see the people who are there. Otherwise, we can do emails/IRC chats with potential participants ahead of time, and then do a checkin call on the day of the sprint, and then just stay chatting on IRC while people tackle projects.
With respect to that, I am planning to have a sprint in the Bay Area in early October. Then it would be great to do another one that is purely remote and see how that goes as well. We could do the remote one in early October as well.
After the sprint, we met with a community leader who is organizing a youth summit in Boston, in October. He had the very great idea, for Boston, of the first groups that we focus on could be groups for youth - for example to have something that could help youth who are doing projects in their communities.
Recommend 10 / Recommend 50
Here is an idea for cities where people want CityGroups, but we can’t immediately find any particular projects or key stakeholders:
We could do a campaign to ask people to recommend 10 community groups that make your neighborhood better. And we can ask community leaders who might have a database to recommend 50. From discussions with different non-profit groups & people in politics, it is clear that some people are concerned with sharing their data. One group of users - regular citizens - is are not as concerned and has basic needs for information that are not being met. Meanwhile, all of the community organizers get calls all the time asking for their lists. We might just need to seed the database to show the utility & need, and then hope that these community leaders come around & share more.
In this instance, we are working directly with city governments, and the hope is that the local government can support these projects to provide basic infrastructure for citizens. It seems like it would be helpful to have a 3rd party that is less biased & has a direct legal call to serve all citizens. That’s a big part of why I’m trying to organize this project as democratically produced open source software.
We need Boston point people
At this point we have a lot of things in place that we would need to launch CityGroups as a small project in Boston, with the hopes to grow over time. The strategy with this project is to have a few groups in different cities that have communities around the project. In Boston, we have a great developer community & the support from the City. And we have some champions. That’s pretty good for just a few weeks. If you know anyone who you think would be a good point person, who could be dedicated to help kick this off for at least the next 6 months, please let me know.
It would be great to have some Boston partners & advisors to be involved with any grants that we write so as to support local community management and the creation of marketing materials, supporting local sprints & any custom development features that Boston might specifically need.
Also, it would be great to do a Kickstarter campaign once we have a project that serves Boston well. Foundation support is one thing, but Kickstarter makes you explain the market value of what you are doing. Which is probably a good lesson for any die-hard open source advocate! :)
- We are sprinting to get CityGroups ready for prime time in Seattle - which means that a lot of the code is getting stabilized, the copy in the site is getting
improved, and we are writing press releases to get community members involved.
- After September 21, I will make a schedule of when I’m working on the code & available for ‘community sprinting’ (it will go on our blog, but i’ll update this thread)
- As I said, we will have some sprints in October, and bring CityGroups to BADCamp. (Bay Area Drupal Camp, 1000+ attendees, Non-Profit Summit, later in October)
- At Code for America, we have a big summit of cities October 13/14…so I’m getting ready to present this project to all of them.
- Lots of hard work on the sustainability plan - which mainly involves getting a few cities participating (community groups, community leaders, stakeholders, point people, developer community, government support.) and finding some foundation support for the next year or two to facilitate the community management of the project - as a project that serves cities, and serves developers, designers, writers & community organizers who want to give back to their city & contribute to solving a problem that costs our local community organizations a lot of time & energy to track down other like-minded people.
Can’t wait to see what happens next.
Thanks everyone for participating!!
- We are sprinting to get CityGroups ready for prime time in Seattle - which means that a lot of the code is getting stabilized, the copy in the site is getting
Let’s just go crazy with this project. It really can’t hurt.
This is the vision:
1. That in your city, you should be able to get a Yelp-like experience for your local community groups. You shouldn’t be expected to spend
hoursyears trolling the Internet to find out that in your own neighborhood, there is a cool group of old people who teach people how to graft scions onto fruit trees, and they really want interested young people to show up. Or that if you go hang out in one neighborhood, that you can have the inventor of an important telescope show you sun spots. (Both true stories.)
2. Beginning community organizers make lists of groups. Groups will always be forming. People will always be making contact lists for whatever topic they are organizing in. The problem is, those lists become squandered. Once you are established, you forget that there are other people behind you who are trying to find their way. A year or two later, that list you made is totally out of date.
We should be using the power of the web, especially the power of the wiki, to make a community directory, and we should focus on making it easy to use, up-to-date, and very localized. We should channel that drive to make lists towards something useful rather than proprietary. It’s when we stop doing these old habits of working and make them more efficient and less redundant that we get to focus more on actually solving problems. Personally, I think that community organizers who would be explaining community groups like a hyper local blogger might - maybe that would be better for everyone. Many of them do this already, on their own dime, on hand-crafted web pages. People like to learn new technologies, but cobbling together ‘web skills’ alone seems like a waste of energy when people could be working together - and make more rapid strides in making better data as well as more deeply improving their web skills, with less effort.
3. We shouldn’t over-reach. This is local information we are focusing on. The groups live in the city & serve city residents. We’re not tackling all of the world’s problems. We’re only dealing with groups - not events or projects. Let’s make a great community group directory that is a web service, and serve one city, neighborhood, or topic well.
4. Support community organizers. Help community organizers share. Help new community organizers find a productive niche. Help people working for a large goal - like a better food system, or a socially just society - to address a network of issues. Share what should be known, give small organizations a boost and more visibility. Help people doing similar projects find each other.
5. Machine-readable. Integrating with emerging tools that support civic work, we can make some strides in giving all of these tools access to high-quality public community groups data.
6. Participatory development. I’m willing to organize a web service to provide stability for this project if everyone else is willing to develop this project with the same values that many of the community groups we list - inclusive, providing opportunities for professional development in technology.
7. Humble about our technology. Quality data, positive user experience & community ownership & governance of the technology are what matters here. Technology gets outdated, we should be humble about using new technology shells.
8. Serving people who care & need this information. This tool is for people who need a little help finding new communities to connect with. It isn’t that we are all totally shy, busy, overworked…many of us might like to know that there is a group of moms who are trying to get together every tuesday and make food for the rest of the week. Do you really have to be a parent to help out? Do you really have to start a non-profit just to have a mom-group? You can organize however you like - using Facebook, Twitter, Email, or going door to door & bugging your neighbors. The fact is, life in America is really hard, and an awful lot of us are not able to really help in efforts to make everyone’s lives better because we just don’t have enough connections to simple and practical opportunities. I believe that better information can fix this. If you want to find existing groups of runners, on that night you are feeling totally fat, you should be able to do a search, find local running groups, not have to read 50 web pages and piece it together. By the time you are done, you may feel hopeless and then decide against making a better choice. It seems unnecessary.
The fact is, most of us don’t know our neighbors. Maybe some of our neighbors are crazy. Maybe some of them are actually cute people we should marry. Maybe you need to be friends with an old lady a few blocks away. We shouldn’t be required to act like advertising executives just to start a community garden. We need a safe & simple place to be listed, and it shouldn’t be cluttered with dumb advertising. It’s not our fault that the commercial development removed corner stores. Some of us still don’t go to farmer’s markets. We need better options. Meetup is a really great example too - you can really find all kinds of things. But we also need someone who is willing to *not* be a technology serving groups, and instead to be a promoter of all the groups. Infrastructure. Google sort of failed us. The things we want to do use generic words, we have no klout, we just want to see if there is a potluck near our house. How are we supposed to know that we are supposed to download 30 different apps and use 30 different civic web applications. Social media follows community boundaries. Someone needs to arbitrate.
There really are no rules here - so really, let’s just figure out what we have to do, as a society, to be able to find our neighborhood organizations more easily. We can be creative in how we work.
These are the funding ideas. Let’s make this happen.
1. Kickstarter. I think it would be really beneficial to have demonstrated community support. If no one wants the tool, then it is not worth our energy to build it, right?
2. Grants to support community involvement. Once people want it though, at the very least we need coordinators and point people to keep it going - and they need to be paid for their time. I’ve organized lots of hackathons (and iconathons) - I think that the value there is in networking, basically people volunteer when they get something for their time. If people aren’t getting value, well, things don’t work anyway, so let’s not do that.
3. Community, government & foundation sustaining support. This effort will take time & coordination. There are all kinds of innovative things we can do if we build a quality community group database. I’m not a fan of the wikipedia/public radio fund drive model… but for making new community group infrastructure, it is an option. The Yellow & White pages are also a model. Some of CityGroups is not very sexy. Showing a list of disease support groups is helpful. It’s not technologically fancy.
In Seattle, we are helping Block Watch Captains in the West Seattle neighborhood to find each other.
You have maybe seen these signs before:
Neighborhood Watch Signs in West Seattle (photos by Chach Sikes)
Prior to my time as a fellow with Code for America, I had wondered what was up with these signs. Now I know. The are put up by neighbors, often home-owners, who are participating in a relationship with the local Police department (in this case, Seattle). The signs help deter crime. And somewhere behind that sign is a Block Watch Captain.
What is a Block Watch Captain?
This is not a text-book definition, but my own interpretation of a Block Watch Captain after interviewing 5-10 Block Watch Captains, and personally, as a citizen and as someone who wants to help people address issues of safety. Here is the official description, from the Seattle Police Department.
How might you meet a Block Watch Captain?
If you move to a neighborhood, sometimes the Block Watch Captain will find you. Some Block Watch Captains view renters as transient, by the way, but there are sometimes Block Watch Captains in apartment buildings.
My own personal experience: I have a sign like those shown above in my own neighborhood in Berkeley. I want to see if there’s a real human behind the sign, but I’m not going to call the Police department just to find out. That’s tax money that I don’t want to waste just to satisfy my own curiosity. Also, I live in an apartment building. No one in my life has ever reached out to me, though maybe I’ve gotten something stuffed in a mailbox. When I lived in Minneapolis, I saw a sign for our neighborhood Corn feed, which was our equivalent of National Night Out.
At the Seattle Iconathon, Shanna Christie, webmaster of the Seattle Police Department, made this sketch of a possible improvement to these neighborhood signs. A QR code. Perhaps we can auto generate a QR code for the Block Watch Captain directory, so that if you live in a neighborhood that has a Block Watch Captain in the directory, you can actually find out who to talk to without having to make a phone call - simply by adding a sticker to the existing sign.
Block Watch Captains are volunteers, and are independent from the Police, though they often work with Crime Prevention Coordinators. Crime Prevention Coordinators in Seattle have played a very important role in teaching Block Watch Captains about ways to make neighborhoods safer - like trimming sketchy bushes, or reporting street lights that are out.
Things I have learned through interviewing Block Watch Captains and community police officers:
Block Watch Captains are volunteers and they are also people who act as the “Mayor” of the Block. They often help facilitate communication among neighbors. In some neighborhoods, they are trained to help their neighbors know how to shut off gas in the event of an earthquake. Block Watch Captains also maintain lists of contact information for elderly people, and might call up their children who live somewhere else. Block Watch Captains often plan National Night Out Block Parties that help neighbors get to know each other. Block Captains are the go-to people in city-wide emergencies, and are the some of the people that the Police talk to when there are serious problems going on.
Some Block Watch Captains want to address persistent and annoying issues like illegal dumping, people selling drugs on the street to kids, or people tagging other people’s houses. There is some relationship to property taxes, where the presence of a Neighborhood Watch increases the value of the homes. Property values tend to go up when a neighborhood is safer. (This may be obvious to homeowners, but as a renter, this is kind of new to me.)
Block Watch Captains tend to focus mainly on issues related to crime, but some Block Watch Captains are interested in Emergency Preparedness, Crime Prevention, Neighborhood Cleanups.
Not every block has a Block Watch Captain. I have heard many times that neighbors knowing each other is the best way to be safe in your own neighborhood. If you want a safer neighborhood, planning a Block Party or a big potluck dinner are two really good ways to go.
What CityGroups is doing
You might be surprised to know that in Seattle, there used to be an up-to-date list of the 4,000 people in the communities behind those Neighborhood Watch signs, but once we got the Internet, the old ways of keeping track were never fully modernized. So now there are lots of out-dated phone numbers.
Because of budget issues, it is harder and harder for city residents to find out who, in their own neighborhood, might be behind these signs. A new Block Watch Captain might expect to be able to connect with other Block Watch Captains through the Internet.
Meanwhile, Block Watch Organizers in West Seattle and other neighborhoods throughout Seattle have started self-organizing to find each other. We have worked with the West Seattle Block Watch Captain Network, and have created a special version of CityGroups that allows for Block Watch Captains in Seattle to build a public directory, with mapping features, that can be kept up-to-date. The data will be exported and also hosted in the Socrata social data service, which Seattle uses for their data.seattle.gov platform (which is how they publicize all of the cities 911 emergency calls.)
Using the CityGroups platform, we are helping Block Watch Captains in Seattle find each other, by helping them share basic contact information with one another. They can draw the boundaries of the community in their “Block Watch” (usually about 25 homes.) This helps them find other Block Watch Captains - which is handy because if there are big storms, rapists on the loose, robberies, murders, earthquakes, it’s better to find the people two blocks away that you know you could talk to.
This is a community-hosted, moderated & maintained project. The code is all ‘open source’ (Drupal) and this project is one example of a ‘community mapping project’ for very small volunteer-run community groups that do important work in our neighborhoods.
We’ll be mapping Block Watch Captains in West Seattle this Fall starting September 15. If you know any Block Watch Captains in Seattle, please tell them to get on the map. If this goes well, we hope to share what we learn with other neighborhoods in Seattle so that everyone can find out what’s going on in their own Neighborhood.
Another task is to develop a civic taxonomy.
You can see this topics page for Seattle’s CityGroups. There are lots of them, and they are all currently free tags. They come from some community outreach databases that were shared on data.seattle.gov, and from the Mayor’s Office.
We are working on a Civic Taxonomy that describes these kind of hyperlocal topic interests. A first draft of this Civic Taxonomy can be seen on the Civic Commons website, and there are a number of other projects that work on this. The list below combines lists from Civic Commons & LikeMinded.
Some of the main categories right now are:
- Public Safety
- Urban Planning
- City Hall
- Public Safety
- Budget & Finance
- Citizen Services
This is the place where we can share our cards.
(Though must figure out to do that with tumblr…)
Our first task is to make the development process social. We are drawing inspiration from a project that happened in Portland, called Calagator. To develop an open tech calendar for the City of Portland, community members would meet up on weekends and work on the project together.
Specifically, they used paper cards for their development. (I’ve reached out to the organizers to see if we can show the cards on this blog.) CityGroups will have some in-person development, but also will have some different people in different cities, and to make the process more social, we are doing the same card thing, but will be taking pictures of them, as you can see here.
Some of the other social development pages:
Another set of tasks involves things to do for the Seattle CityGroups site. http://seattle.citygroups.org.
CityGroups is a public directory of community groups. This includes all kinds of community groups, from online communities around a topic in your city to very hyperlocal private mailing lists that are only relevant to a very small area and limited number of people. The goal is to
- list these groups by topic
- categorize them
- map them.
This will help make all kinds of little groups known. We simply point to emails, urls and calendar event URLs. CityGroups is wiki-like. Anyone signed in can edit the information, which will help keep our community information up to date.
For developers, CityGroups generates machine-readable data. This means that the groups can be mapped, new interfaces can be built, and group-to-group services can be imagined.
There are lots and lots of ways for everyone to get involved.
If you have a particular pet interest, like birding, community health, music - we need people to generate lists of the groups. We have a structure, if you create a spreadsheet (in CSV (comma separated values) format) with certain row headers, you will be able to import all your groups into CityGroups at once.
Some (but certainly not all) of the topics include
- Community Gardens
This will also include data collection projects like reaching out to
- Block Watch Captains (publicly visible, but not yet real data)
- Hyperlocal Blogs
And we are also excited to be working with great neighborhoods, like Wallingford. (Read a great blog post that made it to one of the local blogs.) We started with a handful of groups from Amy Hirotaka’s list of Seattle Communities Online, and community leader Kathy Tuttle took interest and started sharing some of the amazing community groups in the Wallingford neighborhood. So now there are many more groups listed for Wallingford, and growing. If you would like to take on getting groups listed for your neighborhood, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
We will be reaching out to the following neighborhoods for certain:
- West Seattle
- Rainier Beach
If you want to help out, we will have a community event in the near future, in Seattle, possibly in September. We will sign up to do tasks and then take our pictures with our cards so people can see who is doing what.
To get involved, please send us an email at email@example.com.
We have a bunch of things we are working on. One is the general backend of the system.
These are the tasks that we are working on together.
This is our social issue queue for development of CityGroups.