How to Get Started with Code for America

Getting started with Code for America (CfA) can be intimidating - so many projects and new people asking for a wide variety of skills and knowledge. How can someone with technical coding skills find a useful application to help their local community? Is there a place for people without coding skills? What exactly does CfA do?

At the 2018 Civic Camp conference hosted by NC Open Pass in Raleigh, North Carolina, an unconference session was convened to answer these questions and more. The group included brigade leaders from four different CfA brigades across North Carolina (Durham, Cary, Raleigh, and Charlotte) and people who had never previously attended a CfA event.

What is Code for America?

Code for America is a national nonprofit organization that aims to make local government more efficient through coding projects and advocating for open data. CfA has approximately 80 brigades nationally, each with unique goals, projects, and cultures. The brigades try to bridge the gap between what government provides and what citizens want.

Do I need to be able to code to join?

No! Although the focus tends to be around leveraging technical skills, CfA brings many different people and different skills together to work on improving local communities. In law, the legal code is used to define the processes for practicing law and to fully describe the legal system. It’s helpful to think of the “Code” in “Code for America” in this broader sense. One of the keys to the success of CfA is building strong partnerships with government and community organizations, which requires much more than just coding.

What should I expect from my first CfA brigade meeting?

Brigade meetings are a great place to learn and to connect with new people. Meetings are typically posted on Meetup, so search for your local chapter there to find the next event. The CfA meetings are typically used to discuss the current status of ongoing projects, any issues that need to be resolved, and project management planning. Most of the actual project work doesn’t happen at these meetings but by individuals at home in the time between meetings. In fact, many members may not attend any meetings but are still actively contributing to projects. For example, Open Charlotte has approximately 30 members who regularly attend their meetings but has over 200 members who are active on their Slack community.

Is there anything I can do even if I can’t attend a brigade meeting?

Of course! You certainly don’t need to attend a meeting to help out. First, to get a sense of what CfA does, you can watch this Civic Hacking 101 video. If your local brigade has a website, browse around the current projects and see what looks interesting. You can also join the brigade’s Slack group and then reach out on the channel for any projects that interest you to ask how you can get involved. It’s that easy!

Final thoughts

Every CfA brigade is going to look different; they all have different projects, different skills that they focus on, and different relationships with their local community. It’s important to remember that these groups are actively seeking to work with their local government and to improve the lives of their neighbors - that includes you! CfA brigades are open, friendly places to learn more about government, test out new skills, pull out rusty tools, and even (perhaps especially) fail.

Bonus round: What can brigades do to improve onboarding?

One of the most difficult parts of organizing a CfA brigade is balancing the skills that each project requires with which members are interested in the project topic. To improve this, brigades could offer a Google Form survey to track the skills (both technical and nontechnical) and interests of their members. Each brigade often has projects that are lying dormant just waiting for the right person, and such a database would help identify when a new member could be a good fit for resurrecting one of these projects.

Sometimes new members aren’t interested in committing to an existing project but still want to help out in smaller ways. For technical people, brigades can provide an easy-to-navigate list of open Github issues with small needs. For both technical and nontechnical people, accessibility audits are always needed and are simple to learn how to perform. By providing a short accessibility training along with helpful Chrome extensions and/or Firefox tools, new members can audit existing civic hacking projects and government sites for accessibility, tracking issues in Github or another format. Both of these options have the added benefit of allowing new members to gain familiarity with current and past brigade projects.