America’s civic tech army is experiencing some growing pains.
Since its launch in 2012, Code for America’s volunteer-led Brigade program has become one of the most influential civic tech bodies in the country, with chapters in 80 cities and tens of thousands of volunteer participants. A recent study by the Omidyar Network and Purpose found that the majority of grassroots civic tech activities in the U.S. over the past few years have been associated with Code for America (CfA) and that the Brigade network—which costs CfA more than a million dollars a year to run—has largely driven the geographic diversification of civic tech, from hubs in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia to outposts in places like Wichita, Kansas, and Birmingham, Alabama. If you wanted evidence that civic tech is spreading, the CfA Brigade program has been Exhibit A.
But after five years, the program is getting redesigned, prompted both by longstanding frustrations within its volunteer leadership as well as the need to find a more sustainable model. Brigade’s challenges have taken on increased urgency because CfA suffered from a fundraising shortfall last year, as CfA founder and executive director Jennifer Pahlka explained in an email to Brigade organizers at the end of December. (Her email, and others to the organizer listserv, can be found in Code for America’s Brigade program Google group.) Meanwhile, in part because of the budget crunch at headquarters, brigades have been operating since the beginning of this year without the stipends from CfA that have helped support meetings and events in previous years.
A new report by the Center for an Urban Future has found that participation in the technology training programs offered by New York City’s public libraries increased 81 percent in just three years. The classes on offer cover everything from basic computer literacy to coding. In some cases demand far outstrips supply; for example, one program currently serves 400 people but has a waitlist of 5,000. The report concludes that public libraries could and should play an important role in increasing digital literacy and shrinking the “tech talent gap.”
The People’s Climate March last fall in New York City was a monumental feat of organizing prowess. Seasoned environmentalists from big-budget nonprofits worked with grassroots activists from scrappy community-based groups to pull together the largest environmental demonstration in history. The motto “To change everything, we need everyone” was prominently displayed on the homepage of PeoplesClimate.org. To encourage inclusivity, the international environmental group 350.org hired a contractor to implement an online platform that supported decentralized network organizing. The platform was an important tool for getting people, especially those outside New York City, to the march. It made it easy for anyone to participate, even if they were not a member of a big environmental group, through a system of “hubs” that invited people to join based on geographic-, religious-, community-, or issue-based identities. However, after the march was over—after the headlines had been made—financial, technical, and administrative support for the hubs ended, in spite of declarations that the march would be “about more than just a single day.”