A Model Brigade Story

We’re all trying to understand what it means to code for America where we live. We have web skills and we want to use them, generally to make the world a better place, specifically to improve interfaces to our local governments and the ways in which our communities use the web in civic life. As important, we’re trying to figure out how to do this separately, together. “Separately, together” is about how we create and use patterns, learn, and share best practices so that we can scale without centralizing command and control. How does Brigade operate like the internet?

Here’s one story that illustrates what works:

Adopting Adopt-a

You may have heard about 2011 Fellow Erik Michaels-Ober. He created Adopt-a-Hydrant for the City of Boston and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Adopt-a-Hydrant takes the act of adopting fire hydrants for snow shoveling and turns it into an app. There are even some game mechanics that create friendly competition. Erik is a consumate civic-minded developer and has remained committed to Adopt-a-Hydrant by providing developer support, customer service, and even new “business” development. It won’t surprise you to learn that Erik fields emails and phone calls from emergency managers throughout the country and beyond. But Adopta is not Erik’s primary business. (Disclaimer: Adopt-a applied to CfA Accelerator but was not selected.) I’m sure Erik would be happy if a business formed around Adopt-a but that has not been his motivation. He works on Adopt-a when he’s not working for a pay. Erik’s motivation is knowing that Adopt-a-Hydrant is useful and is being used. It’s not only being used, it’s being modified. Adopt-a-Hydrant was turned into Adopt-a-Siren in Honolulu. But that’s another story. Back to Adopt-a-Hydrant and this model Brigade story.

“To whom are the snowshoes given?”

Allow me to introduce you to Andrew Carpenter, from Lexington, Ken. Andrew just launched Adopt-a-Hydrant…for Syracuse, N.Y. What’s more, he just did it. I could see that he was working on Adopt-a-Hydrant because I received an email every time he submitted a pull request. Other than that there wasn’t much communication until we received an note from Erik in the Brigade forum announcing the new instance. That’s when things got exciting. Here was a developer in Lexington, Ken. forking one of our apps and deploying it different city thousands of miles away. I asked Andrew, “why Syracuse?” and he had this to say. He sent help where it was needed. By coincidence, 2012 Fellow Alicia Rouault and Director of Government Relations Mark Headd are from Syracuse and both took notice. Alicia sent around a link to an article in Syracuse.com from last year. Firefighters in Syracuse are all too familiar with the challenge of shoveling out fire hydrants during storms. This morning I reached out to the mayor’s office and the secretary of Local 280, Syracuse Firefighter’s Association. I’ll let you know when I hear back from them. This is about a model Brigade story and I haven’t articulated a model. Bear with me. There’s more to the story.

“There are three main skills that are needed for a successful civic application…”

“…domain knowledge (such as emergency responding), application development (creating a usable piece of technology), and civic engagement (getting people using it and coming back).” That quote comes from 2011 Fellow Alan Palazzolo’s reply on our thread. Inspired by Andrew’s achievement I saw a challenge for the Brigade to deploy scores more instances of Adopt-a-Hydrant to new places before winter. I did some searching a while back and found out that there are Adopt-a-Hydrant programs all over the country. There’s even a Adopt-a-Siren program where volunteers report whether or not they’ve heard an emergency siren during a test.

Deploying software is can be downright trivial compared to deploying a product. Deploying a product, software that is useful and used by people, is challenging and requires effort well beyond coding. Thankfully 2012 Fellow Sheba Namji wisely reminded us of this, and cautioned avoidance of this common trap. But I was not deterred from the challenge. In this case we have good customer leads. We’ve seen demand flowing into Erik’s inbox. Brigades can do this. This is a model Brigade story.

Show me a model Brigade

There are several models that will work for Brigade. This is one of them. Let’s break it down. This model has:

  1. A usable civic technology application that scales (Adopt-a-Hydrant)
  2. Infrastructure for deploying civic software from anywhere to anywhere (Heroku)
  3. Volunteers willing to deploy (and improve) the software (Andrew & Erik)
  4. The domain knowledge of Adopt-a-Hydrant program managers
  5. Civic engagement from existing volunteers and new volunteers in Brigade

We can do this. We can take this model, replicate it, and connect existing Adopt-a programs all over the country to modern web tools. Perhaps not every program will want our tools. Perhaps not every adoption of Adopt-a will stick. If we imagine that there is a success state for civic applications, and I certainly do, then this model has to be a means for achieving success.

If you agree then please send me and Jack this email: “I want to adopt Adopt-a!” Tell us if you are a software developer, a subject matter expert, or a current/aspiring hydrant shoveler. We’ll organize and move out together. If you aren’t yet a member of Brigade, please join.

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