Experiencing Code for Oakland

Meeting

Saturday last I attended Code For Oakland because I was curious about hackathons and the #gov20 movement.  This was to be my first exposure to both.

I took BART from 24th and Mission in San Francisco to 19th and Broadway in Oakland and then walked down to the Kaiser Auditorium on Lakeshore Drive.  As I emerged to the street and took in the striking  serpentine-green I. Magnin building I noted that feeling I always get when I go to Oakland, namely, that what I don’t know about Oakland could sink a battleship.  It was 8:15 am on a Saturday morning, rainy, gray and very quiet.

The Kaiser Auditorium building impresses from the outside with its scale.  It has a grand modernist  persona distinctly distinct from the art deco environment I’d just walked through.  A small paper sign on the door invited me to walk around back for Code for Oakland.

On the inside the modernist theme continued with floating escalators that brought me up to the mezzanine level past a black and white photo homage to Henry J. Kaiser that felt like looking at a 60′s era LIFE magazine.  I was warmly greeted at the Code for Oakland registration desk, grabbed a muffin, some coffee and sat down to wait for I wasn’t sure what.

The lobby was buzzing with the hum of 100 people or so when, at 9am, we were asked to sit down in the auditorium.  Susan Mernit gave a nice welcome and clear overview of the day, then we embarked on what I thought was a brave endeavor: a brief self introduction by everyone in the audience!

My concerns were completely misplaced; the experience was fascinating.  The diverse crowd skewed white/male/geek but far, far less than any tech event I have ever been to with lots of women and people of all colors. The professional breakdown seemed to be along a non-profit to tech continuum with a few student and government outliers.  As I listened to the different voices explaining their respective reasons for volunteering their Saturday, I wondered what factor was the biggest diversity driver: #gov20 or Oakland?

After introductions we were asked to self select into groups to work on the project ideas that had been collected in earlier community meetings, and during the self-introductions.  I was pleased to find some interest in the idea I had suggested to create a simple SMS messaging system for community organizers.  After some milling about the groups moved into the lobby and settled down around the tables set up there.

Working

Our team consisted of myself, Ryan Jarvinen (@ryanjarvinen), Lamont Nelson (@thelamontnelson), Alan Palazzolo (@zzolo), and Keith Tivon Gregory (@tivon).  Except for the extreme gender bias, we were a reasonable mirror of the diversity in the larger group; as the lone Gen X-er (and just barely squeaking into that cohort!) I significantly raised the average age of our otherwise solidly Gen Y crew.  Our overlapping skill sets easily covered experience design, front and back end coding we would need for our project.

As we began brainstorming about the product, which we named ‘ComTxt’ (COMmunity TeXTing), two key ideas emerged.  First, a crucial success factor for community organization is the ability to provide the community with notifications (of upcoming meetings, actions, notable successes, etc.).  Second, the one technology constant among groups of diverse racial and/or socio-economic status (as might be found in an urban neighborhood or as the parents in a public school) is text messaging.  Certainly email is common, but it is by no means ubiquitous, and while phone trees can work, they are inefficient and manually intensive.  Essentially everyone, however, has an SMS-capable mobile phone these days.  Therefore, a system that enabled an organizer to broadcast text messages to a community of subscribers would be a useful tool for advancing community process.

We transformed these observations into a simple vision: a mailing-list for text messages. With this “good-enough” consensus on the basic product vision, we created some sketchy personas (PTA president, teacher, neighborhood activist) and very simple use cases for each.  The PTA president use case was representative: instead of having to collect email addresses at each PTA meeting (and then manually transcribe them), with ComTxt she would be able to display a simple poster that told anyone wishing to receive updates from the PTA to text the name of the school to a particular number.

After a brief break to consume the satisfying and complimentary lunch of sandwiches, chips and cookies, we began to identify the technologies and frameworks we’d use to build our proof of concept.  At this point we had about 4 hours left before the team presentations would begin at 4:30pm.  I was silently dubious that we could go from zero code to a working prototype in that amount of time.  My partners were relatively unconcerned because they understood something I had not yet internalized: we weren’t starting with zero code.

In fact our starting point was the remarkable world of frameworks, APIs and services that is the current web development environment. The programming reality of today is that there is so much pre-existing functionality, documentation and examples available via a web browser that no online project ever starts from zero. My team’s ensuing discussion of exactly which API or service to use was largely over my head, and though I am certain real nuances were being discussed, I think the guys would admit the discussion wasn’t much different than debating which is the best tacqueria in San Francisco.  In the end I believe we ended up creating a node.js solution that connects with the Twilio platform, but I may have missed an abbreviation or two.

By this point in the process we had made a seamless and almost unspoken transition from group process to each of us executing as individuals on the tasks to which we were respectively best suited.  Ryan gathered and returned to us information about the pros and cons of various text messaging platforms he’d learned from other groups, and he set up the Github repository we’d be using.  Alan and Lamont dived into the details of our chosen APIs and began writing the code to implement the simple set of commands ComTxt would understand.  Meanwhile, Keith and I collaborated on a prototype web UI for accessing the service, complete with some initial ideas about branding including a logo.

Sharing

And suddenly it was 4:15 and our prototype didn’t work!  Undeterred, we quickly agreed on how to replace our planned demo with a PowerPoint show which I was still finishing even as I moved from our work table into the auditorium to watch the other teams present.

Watching the other presentations I began to feel like I was seeing the beginning of something real and transformative, even if I still couldn’t exactly articulate what it was. Gov 2.0 may not yet be truly changing lives, but I am certain it will and soon.  Last Saturday I saw one good, and useful, idea after another presented and in most cases actually working with a degree of polish and functionality that was remarkable given the few hours the teams had had to create them.  I got an emotional thrill from the energy and enthusiasm for positive change that had coalesced into these fascinating projects.

Literally moments before our turn to present, Alan, grin on his face, leaned over and told me the system was working!  It turns out as I had been watching the other presentations spellbound, he, Lamont and Ryan had continued coding and had solved the blocking issue.  I rapidly added a telephone number to our title slide and we all went up to present.  The audience understand our simple idea right away and shared our smiles when, after texting a subscription request to ComTxt, our phones buzzed in unison with a message from Alan:

Code for Oakland is great!

Sent from ComTxt

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