Skip to main content

This Lockdown DOES Feel Different

[Cross Post] Engaging Civic-Minded Developers

(this post first appeared on the ATLabs site: Engaging Civic-Minded Developers)

No-one wants to work for free.

Only a handful are willing to take the time, energy and focus they normally reserve for work, family, friends and apply them to ideas that are seemingly unformed, goals that are best described as aspirational or projects that may never see the light of day.

Even these folks don’t want to work for free.

So why do these people be they experienced developers, UX designers, project managers, customer representatives, tech students or even “people with an interest in computers” put aside time to bring their considerable skills to “civic tech”?

Ok, a definition is needed for “civic tech”, and here’s mine:
The application of technology to open up opportunities to solve local* issues by the community directly affected

Here’s one example of such a problem/solution - there are too many taxis with one person driving from the airport thus creating traffic flow issues. Maybe we could create and disseminate an app to passengers that guides those going to the same destination into one cab - 4 cabs with 1 person is now 1 cab with 4 people.

This was an actual app, produced during a hackathon at which app developers, infrastructure experts, city planners and members of the community came together to use the Internet and open systems to sort out their problem.


So that’s what civic-minded developers do, they give their skills, their time and their passion to help communities resolve local issues. But why? Why would a highly paid developer forgo a weekend or a few days salary to do such a thing?

It’s not for free; that’s for sure.

At Hack Miramar, we believe there are 3 main drivers deep within developers that have them volunteering to help.

It’s a funny old world, engineering eh. It’s fast moving with today’s greatest development paradigm quickly becoming tomorrows “old world”. It’s also a slow moving world, with the problems of yesteryear still being the focus for many “IT departments” today.

In this fast yet slow world of the professional developers’ world, there is a freedom in “civic tech”. Rarely are traditional problems presented, these are for the Council, the Government agency, “them” to sort out, but civic tech attracts difficult problems or even wicked problems calling on a multitudes of skills, with data from here mashed with systems from there and hung together with a language at the very cutting edge of tech.

Developers love to show you what they can do, and how fast and how beautifully. And civic developer will gladly “do their thing”, stretch their technical wings as long as peer recognition is forthcoming because they love people.


Forget the stereotype you may have of developers living in the basement, coding up a storm and never wanting to see anyone. Developers love people … they may be very picky about who those people are, but gaining peer recognition is one of their joys of life. For some that may be on a grand scale winning prizes but for others is may be a quiet, “Wow, that’s a fantastic solution, top work”, from someone she has long looked up to.

Developers, like everyone but certainly civic developers, also love to know that their work will be used, that it will make a difference, that it will help. And the best will wait, as the UX designers nut out the intricacies of the flow, as the hustlers wrangle as much data as they can, they will wait, listen and learn, “These are good people doing their bit, my time will come.”

And then they get into it, huddled together, sharing code, Slacking out those grrr moments and constantly making sure they’re all working together. It may look like quiet, solitary work, but it’s anything but.

With the problem defined, the goal whiteboard’ed and the sprints are on … but what’s the ‘Playdo’, what will they be using, what data will they have, what APIs are available?

Many civic developers come from a ‘closed shop’ at work where they have a limited and more importantly known set of resources to work with. In the civic world, it is much more open with open data, open source, free flowing of approaches and agility of mind the order of the day. With access to new resources (particularly data but also domain experts), these civic developers can stretch their wings, explore new patterns and gain deeper skill sets and learn innovative techniques.


So how do you engage with developers, how do we grow the pool of ‘civic developers’, by ensuring we let them show off (on their own terms), bring them interesting and like-minded people to play with and supply new, even exclusive, data and resources.

No-one wants to work for free, but everyone wants to grow, make a difference and solve problems.

See also: ATLabs: Civic Hacking by Nick Williamson

* local, defined how you want. We in Hack Miramar are focussed on Miramar and then Wellington but also know we’re a part of a wider ‘local’ called New Zealand - we’re too small to do it alone.

Comments