A week in the life of a Civic Tech Evangelist Part 3: Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp

| Ivoire Morrell, MSFT Chicago Civic Tech Fellow

Detroit Flight

After speaking at the #micities conference and being enlightened by the incredible ventures showcased at the Points of Light Civic Accelerator, my amazing adventure of civic tech maturation continued on October 14th when I ascended across Earth’s cloudy Troposphere to attend the Sunlight Foundation’s TransparencyCamp, hosted in Cleveland, Ohio. Sunlight Foundations TransparencyCamp is a transcending event that unites civic tech advocates across all spectrums (from social workers to software developers to government officials) who share their insights on how to use new technologies, develop new policies, and use open data to establish stronger governments that work more efficiently for the citizens they serve. Using an unconference format, where events are orchestrated by the attendees, TransparencyCamp fosters collective collaboration between campers who assist in developing the schedule for the daily events and spearhead group discussions/workshops with the primary objective of edifying fellow tech advocates through constructive conversation on how we can revolutionize the world through the power of civic technology.

My journey began at the Detroit Metro Airport where I received my first experience traveling with airlines. My experience was pretty much like you see in the movies (credit card gets jammed in parking meter machine, security searches my bag after waiting in a long line for thirty minutes, etc.). I boarded my plane soon afterward, awaiting the roller coaster ride that never came to be and after a whopping eighteen minutes, I was in Cleveland, Ohio. After getting situated at my hotel, I strolled the sidewalks of Downtown Cleveland, taking in the different monuments and saluting King James on the way to the Cleveland Downtown Library, which was the destination for #TCamp2016.


Day one of #TCamp2016 was an invigorating experience. The daily scheduled was loaded with different events including unconference breakout sessions which were open discussions on topics ranging from promoting transparency with policing policies to creating community collaboration and Lightning Talks where civic tech advocates across the US spoke on what they are doing to impact their communities using civic technology/engagement. The host of the event, the exuberant Kat Duffy (Labs Director of the Sunlight Foundation), kicked off the festivities energizing the crowd with her enthusiasm for civic tech/engagement and elaborating on the emerging civic tech ecosystem developing in Cleveland. Following the warm welcome, campers headed to the wondrous wall of civic tech insight where we chose which unconference sessions to partake in for the day.

Idea Wall

The first unconference session I attended that day was titled Open Traffic. This event was hosted by John McGovern and Josh Kruszynski. The session was a brainstorming conversation based on how DIY data could be collected by citizens to help them propose strategically placed biking and transit structures in communities/cities. I attended this session with my colleague and friend Adam Hecktman who I had the pleasure of meeting in person for the first time (he is easily the funniest Microsoft employee I have met thus far).

The second session I attended was titled Stop Saying Stories Aren’t Data. This event was organized and lead by Kristi Leach. The focus of this session was to discuss how individuals can use qualitative data in their projects to create narratives based on what the data entails. Throughout the session, campers spoke on strategies individuals could use to make data more user friendly and understandable to the general public. During the discussion, I spoke on the highly innovative data analytic and visual presentation software PowerBI, created by the brilliant minds at Microsoft. I shared with the audience how this powerful tool assisted me in constructing visually stimulating charts and graphs based on several datasets including the city of Detroit’s crime dataset. With the visuals in place, I created a three-part blog series titled Community Takes Commitment, where I used the data as a driving force to tell a story about how economic factors strongly affect Detroit neighborhoods with high crime.

Meshed between the unconference sessions, were the Lightning Talks. All of the Lightning Talk speakers delivered excellent dialogues about what they are doing to impact their communities through civic technology and engagement. Two of the speakers in particular, caught my interest when speaking about how they are using technology and open data to inform the communities they serve. The first speaker was Jill Bjers representing Code of America. Jill spoke to the campers about a nifty program called CityGram. CityGram is a notification platform hosted on the web that allows citizens to receive up-to-date information about what’s going on in their city. To use CityGram, citizens synchronize the application to the desired cities open data portal. Once synced, users are able to select areas of interest based off information in the data portal whether it be housing foreclosures, crime statistics, or new restaurant openings and receive automatic updates about these different areas of interest through the application.

The second speaker that peaked my interest was Frank Kohstall who spoke about terrific transparency website called Ohiocheckbook.com. This highly inventive website was created to give Ohio citizens easy access to the local, county, and state budgetary expense information which allows citizens to see how their taxes are being spent by local/state government. Using stimulating visuals in the forms of bar charts and pie charts, citizens of Ohio are able to access information on the state’s largest expenses, the states most profitable companies, local expenses from public utilities to community development, and so much more. Being able to view valuable information on local government budgets/expenses in an easy to use one stop location, saves citizens from having to conduct extensive searches to locate this info and allows them to see how elected local government officials are strategically spending tax dollars.

After day one of #TCamp2016 came to a conclusion, campers embarked on an epic adventure through downtown Cleveland starting with happy hour at 811 Kitchen, leading to a tour of downtown Cleveland riding on the Lolly the Trolley tour bus, followed by dinner downtown where campers were able to enjoy the city’s fine dining while building closer relationships.

TC Group

The momentum from day one carried over into day two of #TCamp2016 where campers were ingrained once more in civic technological euphoria. Day two was loaded with more educating Lightning Talks and unconference breakout sessions with topics ranging from drafting open data policies to the history/future of civic tech.

The first session I attended was called Local Activism How-To’s. This session was spearheaded by campers Gilder Malone, Esther Falcetta, and Fran Match. During this session, campers discussed successful strategies to follow when it comes to tracking public records, efficient ways for citizens to be most effective when it comes to voicing concerns at city council meetings, and also how to develop better relationships between communities and local officials.

In between the first and second unconference breakout sessions, campers were given the opportunity during lunch to present the projects they have been working on to civically enhance their communities. I took this opportunity to talk about the astonishing work my colleagues and I have done in the motor city with CUTGroup Detroit. I took the campers on a journey through the development stages of forming the civic user testing group in Detroit highlighting the recruitment strategies, testers selection process, and other key areas that made this movement possible.

Ivoire presenting

The second session I attended was titled Police Reform. During this session, conversations were held about the use of force policy, transparency with policing data, ways that the relationship between the local police and communities can be improved, and the city of Cleveland’s Consent Decree. The Consent Decree in a nutshell is well documented agreement established between the City of Cleveland and the Department of Justice requiring the Cleveland Police Department to make fundamental changes to policies, practices, training plans, and other systematic changes in order to improve the policing system. This lively conversation allowed campers to vent their frustrations about the policing injustices taking place throughout our nation, share testimonies on their own run-ins with police through simply serving the community as activists for injustice, and proposal steps that must be taken to improve policing/community relations.

The third session I attended was titled The Past, Present, and Future of Civic Tech. This session was organized by Bill HuntDerek EderSasha Cuerda, and Whitney WyszynskiThis session was one of the most inspiring, especially being someone who is fairly new to the world of civic tech. I had the opportunity through this discussion to learn more about the world of civic tech from listening to the pioneers of this great field of work. From defining civic tech, establishing cross collaboration/sharing between civic tech advocates, receiving funding for civic based initiatives, inclusion, government policy, open data, and much more, I absorbed valuable information about civic technology that helped grow as an inspiring civic technologist.

The #TCamp2016 conference events were closed out by Leon Wilson of the Cleveland foundation who offered the crowd inspirational words of encouragement and spoke about his high hopes of the growing civic tech space in the city of Cleveland. After the tech talk closed out, majority of the campers went out for the grand finale of #TCamp2016 where boat rides, free drinks, and snacks were served at LeanDog, an awesome software company in Cleveland whose office harbors on the shores of Lake Erie. Other campers (by others I mean myself) skipped out on the festivities to do my absolute favorite thing to do in the world…homework.

#TCamp2016 was an empowering experience full of tremendous discussions that expanded my perspective on what it means to work in the field of civic technology. The valuable insight I gained from the conference showed me that civic technologist are more than just data analyzers and community organizers. Civic technologist are intercessors serving society as the voice for positive change with government policy, social injustice, and much more. Civic technologist are anomalies in the world of technology in that we do not only hold the technical prowess to assist our communities through the creation of applications, but we also hold a true passion for improving the quality of life for others. Being amongst so many purpose driven individuals was truly encouraging, leaving me with a broadened mission to not only cultivate impactful change that will positively reshape the futures of Detroiters, but to revolutionize and unify the world using civic technology/engagement as the vehicle to inspire innovation.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,