Introducing Code for Milwaukee

Why We Wanted to Create Code for Milwaukee

By Andrew Yaspan

The Need

Members of the Milwaukee business, government, and philanthropic communities (not to the exclusion of some others), those who are traditionally most influential to decision-making, are concentrated on positioning Milwaukee to confront the immediate and looming challenges (as they see them) of the 21st century. This has led to significant investments in workforce development, infrastructure, environmental sustainability, public health and safety. While many Milwaukee area residents, including myself laud many of the actions taken for such purposes, we have also noticed some gaps in their approach. Milwaukee suffers from long-standing high rates of poverty, racial inequities, and segregation. Some of the gaps are related to generational issues, others to more strictly contemporary ones. In either case, we the people have some ideas, and we are actively seeking partners to help us try some out.

This is inspiration for a new initiative, Code for Milwaukee. Code for Milwaukee is growing its ranks with metro area residents who seek to elevate the voice and ideas of those closer to impacts of, yet further from decision-making on the design, focus, and delivery of public services. The main way we plan to do this is by creating digital applications, and analytical products that make public services, and information more accessible. This is why our mission is “to engage residents in relationship building and technical problem-solving to create and maintain community resources, as well as enhance public service delivery.”

The Idea

The big idea is that we can create a community and regular space for this civic work. One of the earliest findings about such efforts in other cities, is that success in this type of endeavor necessitates the involvement of a diverse array of owners/contributors. This requires a large and dedicated group of residents interested in sharing their technical skills and/or their unique understanding(s) of local issues. The return to these individuals are manifold: practical use of technical skills, opportunities to learn or implement new skills, gain additional perspective on important local issues, networking with other individuals seeking to make an impact in their community, and others.

Building and leveraging partnerships

We also have the fundamental belief that government has a unique mandate and a singular responsibility to serve the public’s interest (as opposed to private or “special” interests). Not only do we believe that working with government is core to this effort, but that we can help government directly. Our group will provide the following to government: residents interested in joining or providing input to boards and commissions relevant to their area(s) of interest, working prototypes of digital solutions created for and by residents, and public support of meaningful government efforts to modernize its own IT infrastructure. The work and communications required to make these provisions optimally impactful will necessarily give involved residents greater voice in turn. We hope to give government officials and employees insight into what ideas the public has for ways to improve service delivery and engage the public.

Additionally, we find it of equal importance to engage with the non-profit and grass-roots organizing communities to find unique and scalable ways to increase knowledge sharing, analytical capacity, and digital literacy. Each of these objectives align with making Milwaukee a safe and desirable place to live, work, and play.

A belief in the power of and need for diversity

Another core belief is that any project, no matter how technically sophisticated or well-intentioned, will have an underwhelming to no impact if it is not created for a diverse set of users by a diverse set of resident technologists. Milwaukee is full of technical and creative talent. It has not shortage of organizations that organize and fight for the interests of those with the hardest circumstances and the faintest voice. And it is teaming young professional groups dedicated to making Milwaukee a place people want to stay and grow with (shout out to Social X). I have been able to experience and appreciate this first hand in the year that I have spent here.

Thankfully, we have a foundation

The idea Code for Milwaukee is carrying forth is not a new one. There have been and are civic technologists in working to improve the city as we gather and grow1. We seek to learn from these organizations/efforts, find new opportunities for collaboration, and in some cases reignite people’s’ passion to engage in civic work.

The Roadmap

By convening these individuals, and encouraging residents of all persuasions to lead, contribute, and learn alongside them, we think we can make meaningful projects that can play some sort of role in making Milwaukee a city less noticed for segregation, and more for inclusion. In that sense, we believe we contribute to a vision to make Milwaukee the most inclusive Tech Hub in the nation (re: The Milwaukee Tech Hub).

Even more, by joining a network of volunteer groups like our own across the country (and others) we will benefit from a transnational collaboration that will lead to the creation of reproducible civic technology, standardized of measurements (for comparisons of programs and interventions), and a link to government IT modernization at a national level. That is why we started this brigade under Code for America. “Code for America uses the principles and practices of the digital age to improve how government serves the American public, and how the public improves government. Code for America helps government work as it should in a digital age, starting with the people who need it most.”2

To start our main tasks are to:

  • Establish an open community of those who can have hard-to-develop technical skills, hard-to-acquire knowledge, a unique perspective on a local problem, or an interest in civic engagement
  • Provide a regular space for this community to congregate and work on ideas that seek to learn more about or solve a local problem
  • Create a loose framework for how any group can proceed in its efforts to create an analytical product or development-dependent app solution
  • Create a transparent process for garnering and distributing group resources to support such efforts
  • Support social impact entrepreneurism
  • Manage a core team that is accountable to members of this entire group

What we are doing now

Currently, we are hard at work establishing our foundation with a mission statement and goals, creating our website, reaching out to potential partners, getting started on some dev projects, recruiting individuals, networking via social media, as well as planning hack nights and other events. Thankfully, we have a sizeable core team of 7 at work on these tasks.

We were very encouraged by a great turnout (~45 civic hackers) at our first hack night that took place June 20th. We are now looking to build off of the relationships, ideas and energy from that first event and further formalize the project flow in preparation for and during our next hack night. Our next (2nd) hack night will take place on Thursday, July, 18th from ~6pm to ~9pm at the Lubar School of Business room S151 . You can RSVP here. Everyone is invited, and we hope to have a large and energetic group to get this initiative going.

Also check out our website, which has more information about our team, mission, and initial break groups/projects.