No matter your tech skill level, there are ways for everyone to contribute to online projects that make a difference in local government. Here, you can learn how to implement a crowdsourcing event that involves the community and begins a collaboration between government and citizens.
After interviewing people who worked for the city of Honolulu, Code for America fellows compiled a list of the municipality’s most pressing needs. What emerged was the idea for an interface that allows citizens to easily access government information. The Honolulu Answers website was built in three months, but then it needed some content! Thus the write-a-thon was born. Code for America tapped Burt Lum, a local tech and open data evangelist, who in turn brought others in the tech community to the table.
On a Saturday in June 2012, over 55 community members and city employees collaborated on researching and writing 120 answers to common civic questions.
How you can do it
Neighborhow has written a terrific guide on how to host your own write-a-thon, which you can read here, but we’ve excerpted and summarized some of it below:
Decide what type of write-a-thon you want. Have a clear focus, purpose, and goal. Answer questions like: what do you want people to write? What resources do you need? What will you do with the content afterward?
Decide who you’ll want to invite. Beyond community members, think about who should be in the room: industry or issue experts, press, community leaders?
Involve people in government. To pursue a project that impacts your city, Burt says you’ll need buy-in from the local government. Ideally, you’ll also find people who will commit to helping out long after the event is over.
Choose a date. Pick a weekend day to maximize the number of people who can come.
Choose a venue. Remember you’ll need wireless access!
Decide the writing specifics. Think about what you’re looking for (ie: rough drafts or more polished content?) and how you’ll support writers with training, editors, etc.
Plan the food. Ask local restaurants if they’d consider donating meals or snacks, explaining to them what your project will accomplish. In Honolulu, a cupcake truck dropped off 50 cupcakes as a treat for volunteers.
Finalize the event agenda. You can see a full agenda on Neighborhow.
Publicize your event. How you do this depends on who you’re trying to reach. Online outreach through social media works well, but you may want to try in-person outreach as well to cover more bases. And use an online registration tool to keep track of volunteer RSVPs; you can see what Code for Hawaii used here.
Organize supplies and volunteers for event day. Make sure to have writing materials and whiteboards, as well as provisions for submitting writing digitally. You’ll also want to have a few people to help you set up.
Prepare writing topics. Print them out ahead of time, or if you’re going to brainstorm that day, have back-up topics ready to warm up the group (just in case they don’t start off with tons of ideas).
On event day. Post the prepared topics. Ask your writers to start with one, then take on more until all are done. If you invited any members of the press, make sure you have time to talk with them. And don’t forget to take your own photos and videos for sharing later!
Wrap up the event. Thank everyone for coming, and ask writers to say a few words about their experience if time permits. Ask for feedback and explain you’ll use it to improve the event for next time. Praise everyone and talk about the ways they can keep in touch.
After the event. Document how it went, sharing your story and any photos or videos on your media channels of choice. Share everything with attendees, press, and any other interested folks.