Exploring Civic Engagement and Technology in Portland

During the process that led up to creating Calagator, I participated in at least a year of conversations, often one-on-one, about Portland’s growing user group communities and technology events, and how those of us organizing and participating in them wanted a way to know what was going on outside our immediate social network. But even though we were talking about it individually, we couldn’t fix the problem without creating a public forum where everyone could discuss and contribute to a solution.

The other day, a friend helped me realize that something else I’ve been poking at over the last year is in a similar state. The things going on with this project seem so obvious to me, because I’ve been talking with different people about it for months and months, but really there isn’t much transparency to people who haven’t been involved in those particular conversations. That’s really bad, because this project is about all of you in my local technology community. So let me explain what’s been happening, and what this “civic engagement” thing is about.

Last year, about this time, I was invited to participate in one of a series of conversations organized by the mayor’s office to connect with local businesses. We talked about the role of open source in Portland’s tech environment, and the things we saw happening with our startup and side-project colleagues. One of the things that became clear through this conversation was that city government entities don’t really know how to interact with our loosely organized, ad hoc organizations. We told them that this open source thing was really big, and we knew that a lot of us were working in informal and microbusiness settings, but we didn’t have any numbers to demonstrate what “big” was, or what sorts of things people actually work on.

Busy schedules being what they are, the group of us who participated in that meeting started discussing doing some sort of census to identify the community we were talking about, but only finally finished preparing and releasing the survey … last week. Yeah, we meant to tackle that a lot sooner.

In the meantime, a few things happened:

Mayor Sam Adams announced that the City of Portland is committed to using and promoting open source for city projects and local businesses.

The City’s Economic Development Strategy was released and ratified, identifying software as one of their key economic development “cluster” areas.

The Portland Development Commission began their analysis and planning process for the software cluster’s economic development plan.

That last item is where is gets complicated. As I said above, many of us are involved in activities that are not so much like the other sorts of business activities the economic planning folks are used to working with. There are some parts that look familiar to them, and that’s the kind of business represented by the SAO. And we know there are some cultural differences between the SAO community and non-member technology communities. But this non-member community is pretty big, it’s a significant part of what’s going on, and it’s my community.

Over half of us (from initial survey reports) are working in companies of 25 people or fewer, two-thirds are working with open source, three-quarters work with web-based software. Around 18% are sole proprietors. So many of us are not working within large, structured organizations. It’s really important to me that this voice is represented in the PDC and city economic development work as well.

Well, what are we going to do about it? Eva and I are planning to have some initial survey results to talk about at the Lunch 2.0 at the PDC this Wednesday. We’re hoping to use that to start a conversation with them about how to do further studies and planning for economic development that reflects the needs and concerns of the communities we’re a part of.

This is a start, but what we really need is for the rest of you to be involved too. That’s the “civic engagement” part of this title. There are a couple of sides to that:

We want to find ways that all of our great independent groups in our tech community can have an interface to talk to civic entities like the mayor’s office and the PDC. This way we can make what we need visible to entities that may be able to help, and make sure that efforts that are directed on our behalf target all of us.

We want to find ways that our groups can be better engaged with each other. We have common problems, interests, and resource needs. We’ve also learned things about running user groups and technology events and open source projects and businesses that we could share with each other. This cross-group engagement can also include working on the connections between traditionally-represented tech communities (such as the SAO membership) and our independently-organized communities.

Just as Calagator needed a mailing list so we could talk about fixing our community calendar problem (and meet up and make it happen), this conversation is going to need some sort of forum and home base. I don’t know what that is yet. There’s a PDX Groups mailing list that’s been useful for cross-user group interactions, but it’s more focused on user group leaders and might not be the right space to talk about the externally-facing aspect of this. A wiki could help. Or a message board, or a blog?

But here’s another way we can take the first step: at Open Source Bridge, in just a few weeks, we’d like to have a Civic Engagement Meetup to talk it over. There’s no agenda (yet), but maybe the rest of you can help me out with that. What would you like to see happen next?

If you’ve read this far, thank you, and I’m glad you’re interested in what’s going on. Please leave me a comment to let me know what you think, and don’t forget to take the survey!

3 responses to “Exploring Civic Engagement and Technology in Portland

  1. Pingback: REMINDER: Take a few seconds to respond to the Portland software community census « Silicon Florist

  2. One important omission from this article is mention of the City and regional governments offering of open data on CivicApps.org.

    As I shared with Rick Turoczy of Silicon Florist, “CivicApps.org is a groundbreaking ‘first’ in its attempts to facilitate civic engagement by relating ideas, apps, and datasets into an ongoing conversation between government and the community.” The open source community to be specific.

    CivicApps relies on civic participation in the form of submissions (ideas and apps), comments, and voting for submissions, to work.

    If you haven’t done so, please check out CivicApps.org and join the conversation that’s already underway in our city.

  3. Thanks for the reminder about CivicApps!