Engage and welcome new team members by creating and offering mini project ideas

Group photo of the Code for San Jose team at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose
Group photo of the Code for San Jose team at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose
Code for San Jose team

Last weekend I attended a fun meet-up session organized by brilliant minds at Code for San Jose. The idea was to come up with a set of mini 2-hour civic projects for beginners. I wanted to share my thoughts on what we did because I think it’s something we should all be thinking about if we expect new people to feel welcome and engaged when they join our team, group or workplace.

I’ve been going to civic hacking events in Philly for some time and remember my first meetup over 2 years ago. There was a brief introduction. After that, I was surrounded by lots of talented civic hackers working on projects that seemed big, well established and, frankly, overwhelming. And that’s coming from a software engineer with years of experience.

Where to start? What problems were we trying to solve? What’s 311 and will I sound stupid if I ask? Where’s the open data coming from and why’s it so difficult to use?

Over time I learnt about open data portals, tools like Mapbox, CartoDB, data scraping, open data APIs, 311 systems, transit GTFS feeds etc. etc. I looked at work by rockstar Civic Hackers like Derek Eder and Chris Whong; and reached out to chat about their achievements. I met up with people from the City, SEPTA (Philly’s transit authority) and went along to other Code for America groups (“brigades”) like BetaNYC to find out what problems they were trying to solve.

The unlockphilly website showing 3 elevator outages
Unlockphilly: Simple projects can communicate a powerful message

Eventually, I figured out easy ways do what I wanted to do: help get broken elevators at stations fixed by improving awareness of the outages. I cleaned up some open transit data, mapped it, tweeted my results and established a project, Unlockphilly.

I also discovered that some of the best civic work doesn’t involve extensive software development; just a great idea that solves a real problem and creative thinking combined with open data and simple, free tools.

In the meantime, I saw lots of people from different backgrounds with bucket loads of enthusiasm and valuable/diverse skill sets (technical and non technical) come and go after just one week. I think many of them found it difficult to see a quick way to contribute and found the experience confusing and overwhelming.

These problems obviously aren’t restricted to to the civic hacking world, they’re pervasive throughout most organizations and us ‘experts’ have a responsibility to have ‘beginners mind’ and think about ways to help new people feel welcome, engaged and valued.

Code for Philly on location at Amtrak 30th Street Station. Dawn McDougall welcome team members and initiating a community needs assessment.
Code for Philly on location at Amtrak 30th Street Station. Dawn McDougall welcomes new team members and initiates a community ideas generation session at Apps for Philly Transit.

Things have changed dramatically since I signed up. At Code for Philly we have great welcoming sessions led by an incredible team of dedicated and passionate people who understand the challenges of being a newbie. Mentors will help you find the right project match for your interests and skills set and even help you get started with your own idea. The brigade has high turnout with lots of regular members and incredibly active and impactful projects like CyclePhilly.

However, there are still challenges when it comes to knowing where to start with so many experienced experts and well established projects around.

That’s where mini projects come in. Team members with knowledge of easy-to-use tools and clean data sets devise small, well defined 2-hour tasks. New recruits pick up these tasks and pair up with someone who can help. Hopefully they then complete their first hack night feeling engaged and proud of what they’ve achieved.

Here are some of the ideas we came up with to get things started.  We put these issues in our ‘Project Ideas’ repository and labelled them ‘Small Project’ so they’re easy to identify.

The first idea is a foundation to ensure beginners have access to free, simple (but powerful) data/hacking tools that require minimal setup.

We’ll be refining and building on these ideas in coming weeks based on feedback and success measures. I’m hoping to see lots of great work coming out of this from happy, engaged civic hackers!

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki – Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind




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