Macon It Happen

After attending both PyCon and OSCON, and manning the Code for America expo booth at both events, it’s become pretty clear that technical people are kind of shocked that Macon is a Code for America city. “Macon… Georgia?” is a question I’ve heard multiple times (with varying amounts of pause between city and state). In fact, one of the first times I heard it was when my dad asked it in December of last year. There’s always a little bit of disbelief and curiosity behind the question, too. And, they’re not alone — I was taken aback at first, as well.

Macon is unique in a couple of ways. First, it’s the hardest Code for America city to get to of any of those that have been in the program. It takes the same amount of time to fly to Atlanta as it does to Honolulu, and it’s a longer drive from Atlanta to Macon than it is from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. Second, it’s the only Code for America city to apply without a specific idea and really open-ended goals. It’s pretty unique for a city to open its doors for a year without a list of wanted outcomes (and this awesomeness is completely due to Amanda Deaton and Beverly Blake).

Living in Macon for the month of February was somewhat of a marooning — the mental image I like to use is David Eaves tossing us off the side of a boat — because no one else from Code for America even spent the night in the vicinity of Macon besides Jessica, Nick, and me. But, this was probably the best thing that could have happened.

Since Jessica grew up near Macon and worked in Boston’s city government for three years prior to Code for America, the month was almost like playing a video game with cheat codes. She immediately disarmed anyone that was leery of the program, and since everyone assumed Nick was still in either middle school or high school, they immediately took to liking him, as well.

I can still remember the 100+ introductions we made during that time. Jessica would introduce herself and mention she was from Warner Robbins, to which everyone would smile and laugh. Then, Nick would swoop in and mention that this was his first time being in the South since he grew up in New Hampshire, to which everyone would smile and ask his age. And then, without fail, I’d explain that I was from Texas and was just happy to be in Macon, to which no one responded. Utter silence and the occasional disapproving look. Within the first five minutes of each encounter, I was already the outcast in the conversation.

Having Amanda as our city contact and Beverly as our contact from the Knight Foundation (a funder of the Macon partnership) was incredible, as well. Between the two of them, any meeting or introduction was possible — from department directors, to city council members, to Mercer professors. The roadblocks faced by some of the other Code for America cities simply didn’t apply to our team.

As Abhi Nemani (CfA’s strategy and communications director) has put it before, there’s “an unhealthy amount of love” and camaraderie on the Macon team this year. I think us having to strictly rely on one another those five weeks is what really solidified it — which is actually kind funny, because we’ve all had some pretty heated debates with one another over the past couple months.

One night, after a day filled with meetings that ended in each of us going in our own separate ways to unwind, I received several frantic phone calls from Jessica. She had discovered that Nick walked through one of the rough parts of Macon to check-in on Foursquare at an IHOP, and he was currently there eating pancakes. Once he got back to our apartment, and Jessica scolded him for 30 minutes, Nick never walked to that IHOP again.

Another time, after a particularly heated discussion in our basement office at Macon City Hall, Nick concluded the argument by semi-shouting, “THAT’S IT — I’M GOING FOR A WALK!” The argument turned into laughter, and from then on out “going for a walk” became synonymous with taking a break from one another. It’s hard to get across that we were never more than half a mile away from each other over the course of those five weeks, and often never more than just a couple feet. These little inside Macon jokes helped kept us sane.

It wasn’t all fights and meetings during the month of February, though. One night we threw a pretty wild mapping party at our apartment, consisting of the three of us using TileMill to map public shapefiles that we had received earlier in the week. Code for America is awesome in that it combines individuals — who find activities like mapping public data in TileMill fun — into a team and overall collective group for a whole year. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before.

The Macon inside jokes kept piling up during this time, too. From our car being nicknamed Ruby on Wheels, to the possibility of starting a breakfast club and buying the domain maconbacon.me. We also began our morning commute with a “Macon in!” greeting, and said goodnight to one another with “Macon out!”

Within a couple weeks, Jessica became a local celebrity, and was interviewed by the local TV stations on several occasions. Also, Nick became one of the most liked people in Macon. Everyone he met was happy to schedule a meeting with the three of us, and he even gave a presentation at Mercer’s MUGTUG (Mercer University Google Technology Users Group) group.

Our list of possible projects grew to nearly 20 in the final weeks in Macon, and we made one of our most import team decisions completely by accident. Instead of all solely committing to a single project, it became obvious that, while we all wanted to attack the same goal, it’d be best to approach it from different angles with different apps. Nick would own his project, Jessica would own hers, and I would own mine — but they’d all work together in the bigger picture of helping Macon in the best way possible.

As February ended, we held our Code Across America event at the local coffee shop and library — to which eight people showed up (two of which were from one of the local TV stations). While most people would wince at the low number (especially compared to the turnout at Team Philly’s hackathon), the event was actually pretty successful, in my opinion. Jessica taught all the attendees how to use Twitter, and then sat down with Mayor Reichert to setup his Google Docs account. Both of his parents had passed away the previous week, and she showed how he could upload a photo of them that would then be reachable on any computer at any time. Although no civic technology was deployed in Middle Georgia that day, I think that’s still a pretty cool success story.

I’ve missed being in Macon. Only Nick’s been back since our five week residency, but I’m looking forward to my flight back next tomorrow. I can’t wait to show them what we’ve prototyped and built.

Macon out.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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