Five organizing tips for a successful CityCamp

January 17, 2012

Original appearance on

Joining the open source (and CityCamp) movement has been one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve been involved with open source for over a decade, but I never got involved in a community project in any significant way–until I found CityCamp. I haven’t submitted a single line of code, but I’m able to bring my project management and community-building skills to the table. That’s important because it highlights the fact that there is more to open source contributions than writing code.

I interned at Red Hat in 2000, which introduced me to the open source way. I joined the company full-time in 2003. I’ve come across a lot of open source projects, but nothing grabbed my attention quite like CityCamp. I got involved with the movement last year and it has allowed me to blend my open source experience and community management skills with my passion for participatory government.

I jumped right into the thick of things and helped organize CityCamp Raleigh. I was able to attend CityCamp Colorado and CityCamp Honolulu. I was bummed to miss out on CityCamp Minnesota. I learned a great deal by participating in other camps and from following the ones I couldn’t attend.

I really liked how the CityCamp movement took an open source approach, especially for the brand. Any city or community, worldwide, that has people who want to organize and advance their local open government movement is free to adapt the CityCamp framework and brand for their mission–as long as it’s in-line with the goals of CityCamp.

I’ve met a lot of great people along the way and seen some amazing things happen in the course of a weekend. In the spirit of giving back, I gathered some of the documentation used for CityCamp Raleigh and shared it with other planning groups. Now I want to share some of the observations and lessons learned from all my 2011 CityCamp experiences.

Five organizing tips for a successful CityCamp

If you’re thinking about planning a CityCamp, you’ve probably already discovered the ‘start a camp‘ page. Based on my experience attending several events, planning one event, and mentoring other planners, there are a few best practices that can improve the outcome of a CityCamp significantly.

  1. Generate ideas before the camp. Participating in an unconference like CityCamp is new to many people. Especially when you include many varied participants: citizens, municipal workers, developers, designers, elected officials, and anyone else interested in participating. You can overcome these barriers by gathering problems citizens face and generating ideas for solving them before your conference starts. This helps people make the connection between open government and how they can participate. It also gives people a reason to attend and allows the organizers to invite key stakeholders from their local government. Most groups are doing this online using technology such as User Voice, which includes a voting feature. The key here is to make sure there are ideas populated on the forum when people visit. Have your planning group generate at least 3-5 ideas before you announce it. Also, make sure users who visit can build on those ideas.
  2. Pair municipal staff with ideas. Now that you’ve got some ideas before your camp, invite key stakeholders to participate. If you have an idea with community interest and a high number of votes, show this momentum to a department or agency that can foster the idea and make real progress. It is important to have access to data or internal knowledge that can help municipal staff identify barriers that will need to be worked out, or other plans that need to be considered. The staff often wants to help out, and is happy to engage with CityCampers because you are working together towards a common goal. As a team working towards the same goals, any ‘us versus them’ mentality goes away. It also helps to create accountability on the government side, as well as a level of excitement–new people working on something new to them, with (hopefully) new and creative approaches. I have found that if you don’t have access to municipal staff, your ideas can potentially stall and progress will take longer.
  3. Document. Document. Document. It may sound like an easy thing to do, but pulling it off with all the other things happening may be more difficult than you’d expect. My number one piece of advice: Don’t let documentation become an afterthought. At CityCamp Honolulu, they hooked up with University of Hawaii journalism students who helped to document each breakout session. These summaries are now posted on their wiki. This has two major benefits. First, ideas and sessions are documented for people that cannot attend camp in person. This lets them participate later and serves as a reference for those who were there. Second, the involvement of students helps boost energy and increases the familiarity with a lot of the technologies, tools, and processes. In most major universities, students are coming in contact with some form of open source. Students are more likely to be users of social media and web-based collaboration tools. They are tomorrow’s leaders–and it’s important to invite and include them in your camp.
  4. Bring in an outside perspective. At each camp that I’ve attended, there have been attendees from out-of-town. This was extremely valuable for CityCamp Raleigh (my hometown), because it helped generate different ideas and build on what’s happening at other camps in other cities. This cross-pollination of ideas is powerful and, as more camps start up, this will be more important. At CityCamp Honolulu, I was one of a handful of people providing that outside perspective. I found myself helping the organizers, brainstorming with attendees, moderating sessions, and sitting for a panel. If you’re attending a CityCamp–whether near or far–be prepared to play multiple roles.
  5. Have an action plan after the camp. You’ll have a great time at your CityCamp event. It will be even better if attendees have something to look forward to at the end. Whatever you decide to do, I think it’s important to establish a cadence–a regular repeated event or engagement–that keeps the community coming back together. There are a variety of ways to do this.
  • Before the end of your camp, host a session to organize the next steps. Get folks who want to help advance your local movement generate ideas to keep things moving. This will help you get new folks on your planning committee and, in the long-term, prevent burnout.
  • CityCamp San Francisco participates in Third Thursdays, a monthly meet-up. They recently held a hackathon that brought together developers and other creative professionals. The goals were to build applications that deliver valuable resources to the community.
  • CityCamp Colorado helped create a local Open Government Directive at their first camp. At this years camp, they explored ways to help further the adoption of the directive. In other words, have your camp work on a project that extends beyond your unconference to keep campers motivated and engaged.
  • CityCamp Raleigh has been hosting quarterly meet-ups and is looking at having a forum/hackathon in early 2012. CityCampers have also started a local wiki project that allows both developers and citizens to contribute to a common knowledge platform. A wiki project is a great way to get non-developers involved.
  • CityCamp Honolulu laid out a timeline at the start of their camp. They have a hackathon planned for January 2012 and a Code for America project coming in February 2012. Organizers Forest Frizzell and Burt Lum have also committed to monthly meet-ups. Having a road map is important to show campers the journey you plan on taking.

Those are some key lesson learned from my 2011 CityCamp experiences. Did you attend a CityCamp and learn something new? I welcome those ideas and other thoughts in the comments.

About Jason Hibbets

Jason Hibbets is a co-founder of CityCamp NC.