Digital Outreach for Civic Hacking Awesomeness – National Day of Civic Hacking


Digital Outreach for Civic Hacking Awesomeness

Practical ideas for promoting your local civic technology hackathon*

Written for local National Day of Civic Hacking organizers by Steven Clift,

 These strategies are based on twenty years of experience with online groups related to open gov/civic tech. This includes direct involvement with CityCampMN, Open Twin Cities, Hack for MN, Open Minnesota, and connections with Code for America Brigades around the nation. If you find this advice useful, we pro-actively share similar tips via our new Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group and on the Code for America Brigade mailing list.

* – What’s a “hackathon” or code-a-thon? It is an in-person event where groups of people write/adapt software code, design web/mobile apps, visualize data on maps. etc. See Wikipedia and our local Hack for MN for more.


As the National Day of Civic Hacking 2014 on May 31-June 1 approaches, these online outreach tips will help your local event inclusively reach and engage more participants. Participants who are ready to share their skills, passion, and desire to build community connections and innovations that last.

While the national Hack for Change website supports national marketing and will funnel some participants your way, bringing people in the door will mostly come through your local outreach.

Just so I am clear – a bunch of tweets and a Facebook page will not cut it for outreach. Each outreach actions you take will bring in one, two, or maybe three people. If you want 100 participants, take at least 30 actions online with digital outreach.

Getting started with outreach:

  1. Save the Date Notice ASAP – Send out a “save the date” shout out to as soon as possible. Don’t wait for your event website to be perfect … every day that slips by matters. Get the date of your event on people’s calendars.
  2. Gather Email for Long-term Use – Promoted from the event website, local civic tech site, etc. create an email newsletter (or a “subscribe to blog” email option) for the leading ongoing civic tech effort in your area that will have permission to send updates to people well beyond this one event. Local civic tech leaders can then reach people and reuse “the list” it for future civic tech events and announcements. Yes, create a Twitter account and Facebook Page. You want to make it easier with each future event (meetup, Brigade launch, etc.) to reach people with invitations right to their email box. Facebook Pages have an increasingly terrible reach.
  3. Promote Sustained Online Group Exchange – The strongest local civic tech cities have vibrant online groups that generate engagement and belonging between events. If you don’t have one, start one (and join them in other cities and global groups too for “we can do it too” inspiration and content to forward into your local community). In your event registration form, make being added to the online group the default with an opt-out option. Then manually add those people to the ongoing online group (whether it is a Mailman list, a Google Group, or hosted at E-Democracy on GroupServer, etc.) Some tools only allow you to “invite” people which is sub-par – you want to able to use any permission you have received to just add them without requiring them to confirm their interest a second time. At CityCampMN almost no one opted out and over 2/3 who attended were not already on the Twin Cities Brigade list. Going from 125 to over 200 members has been tremendously valuable post-event.
  4. Add Smart Registration Fields – Create your Eventbrite or other registration form as early as possible. Then regularly work registrants to invite a friend and reach out to others. Be sure to add fields for Twitter, etc. and to publish who is registered (scroll way down for an example). These public “who’s coming” list of names are one of your best marketing tools. Also use survey options with the registration to collect useful information about skills, interests, important demographics, dietary restrictions, etc. Be sure to use all the options that help Eventbrite share the event widely with folks trolling the main Eventbrite site and use their Facebook event hook up as well.


Advanced Civic Tech Event Community Outreach:

OK, going well beyond Facebook and Twitter outreach, here is how you go deep with online outreach…

  1. Local Tech Developer Online Groups – Send a customized invite to each group (typically buried mailing lists). Promote a friendly rivalry to “do good” with their language/code of choice. Try to get at least one civic tech interested person from each major development community to join your event organizing team or internal online group. Having multiple coders from major computer languages/frameworks makes clustering on projects easier.
  2. Local Tech/Web Meetups – Go through Meetup and look for groups within scope of your event. Message the leaders asking them to post. Or if you are already a member, try to post the hackathon directly. Note that there is a daily maximum on how many organizers you can contact privately via Meetup each day (something like five a day).
  3. Tech Community News and Calendars – What is the “go to” niche tech news site for your local tech community? Find it. Send them stuff and consider swapping sponsorship for in-kind promotion. is a big booster of civic tech for example. What about local tech calendars like Seattle? If you have one, get your event on it. Does your community have a local tech start-up community email list like Seattle or a non-profit tech online group like Minnesota or a NTEN 501 local network? Join and post or contact the leaders of these networks.
  4. Global Networks with Local Events/Chapters – After you post to your local Code for America Brigade online group, ask yourself who else might be organizing locally with folks interested in your event? Check national/global “brands” to find local point people who have already made similar connections – Larger cities will naturally have overlapping networks for “do good” technologists with each “brand” attracting new people into the local tech for change ecology. Dig into networks like: RHok, NetSquared, Tech4Good, Hack4Good, Crisis Commons, OpenCrisis, Hacks and Hacker, US Ignite, CityCamp, Geeks Without Bounds, Code for Resilience, OKFN
  5. Past Eventbrites – If your local civic tech community has had past events, send an invite via Eventbrite or ask the owner of that previous event to do it for you. These past attendees are probably your lowest hanging fruit. Ask people to tell a friend and caution any “sign-up first, check calendar later, no show folks” to cancel their registration if they can’t make it. If your space is limited, and you are worried that you will fill up the slots too quickly, consider what we did with CityCampMN in 2013 and have a cheap guaranteed seat (~$10) and lottery seats that will allow you to randomly pick people if you are way over capacity even after a call for cancellations. Offer guaranteed seat scholarships upon request for lower income folks and students – and they were very appreciative including a group from a teen tech program.
  6. Tech Journalists – In addition to niche tech new sites, reach out to tech-interested journalists, reporters on the local government beat, etc. You can reach out one by one via email, use Twitter mentions (@reporterhandle) with link and invite, and crucially call the five most important journalists. Television news coverage of Capitol Code was huge for our movement and such coverage helps cement the interest of political leaders. Start a collection of local press coverage links because journalists will look at past coverage as an indicator that your current event is the real deal. Also seek out the “CARR” expert or the librarian in the newsroom of major dailies. They care a lot about sourcing open data for stories even if they themselves will not likely cover the event.
  7. Facebook Page Door Knocking – While pages have almost no reach these days, posting to local government Facebook pages (and other appropriate pages) about your event will at least notify the page owner of your event. Imagine having 10 or 15 of the key community Facebook Page managers at your event – they are the writers, researchers, and story-tellers you need on your hackathon project teams. In terms of civic tech related Facebook Pages that you control, consider paying $50 to promote a post through your fans to their friends. It might be worth it.
  8. Twitter Hashtags – Post to global #opengov and #opendata hashtags along with either local geographic/civic tags (e.g., #stpaul, #mnleg) or place names to give a shout out for your event. Rinse and repeat at least weekly with pity updates up until your event. Celebrate registration goals.  If you have local civic tech, startups scene, etc. hashtags those will be very strategic to use. If you have big events like #minnebar happening in the run up to your event, Tweet the link to your event when people are paying attention. Also push yourself to @mention at least ten people you hope will retweet your event link to their large follower base.
  9. Neighborhood Email Lists and Online Groups – Consider sending tailored messages to local neighborhood and community-based online groups. You need to search for these. Most are below the radar from older groups on YahooGroups to newer ones as Facebook Groups – here are examples in Minnesota, Seattle, and DC. Customize the invite and say you are looking for participants specifically from their neighborhood who want to use civic technology to improve their local community. Say something like, come to our regional event and then organize a local happy hour to connect neighbors who want to use technology for community good in their area. One size fits all outreach that is not politely customized per online group may not work well. E-Democracy’s open-sourced network has over 20,000 members in the Twin Cities. Many of CityCampMN and OTC hackathon participants have been reached via these networks because these spaces are filled with community spirited people who happen to code, design, etc. When you have your location, do special outreach in nearest neighborhoods or cities for sure.
  10. Inclusion Matters – We could write an entire guide on making civic technology and open government far more inclusive. Heck, we need a campaign too. This is a real problem whether it is who is at the design table, whether user-centered design is considered, or with open government generally whether the products of our movement are reaching more than those who already show up. So, hosting more inclusive hackathons is one of the steps we must take to engage new voices and to create solutions used by those who may benefit most. Think about the demographics you want in the room. Then take steps to reach out to organizations and individuals if you aspire to be reflective of the diversity in your local community, while celebrating the value of everyone who shows up. Some low-hanging fruit networks are libraries and community technology centers/projects involved in digital inclusion efforts (e.g., in Minnesota we have CTEP, Technology Literacy Collaborative). Reach out to students, schools and colleges. Think about where lower income computer science or web design students might attend and reach out to bring them to the table. They will have a lot to teach everyone about connecting with users from very different life circumstances.
  11. Government Leaders – Start with and then go beyond area government CIOs/CTOs to reach out to local city council/county board/school board members, and state legislators who seem “tech” or public participation interested. If you don’t know any, try calling the office of your local representatives and ask them, “Who are some of the council members who use Facebook the most/are most interest in technology/etc.” and then use those recommendations to say “so and so suggested that you’d be a good person to invite to our hackathon because of your interest in XYZ … we’d like to get you registered but you can just stop by … oh, you are interested … would you like to share a few words about the importance of open government and the innovative use of technology in our community at the launch of our event.” Getting elected officials on record in support of your efforts give the city tech leaders/staff political cover as they push departments to embrace more open government.
  12. Research Centers with Data – Reach out to research centers with expertise in census data, etc. You need people in the room who know where the data is buried (but accessible.) These folks helped whip up this spreadsheet in Minnesota.
  13. Document Your Event – Just as pictures, videos, and quotations about last year’s event or previous hackathons are useful for this event’s promotion, be sure to capture and curate the best highlights for marketing use next year. Pictures of people working together, screenshots from projects, short video clips help people “see what they are missing” and make it more likely that they will prioritize coming next time.
  14. Print Materials, Stickers – People at hackathons love adding stickers to their laptops. Have stickers to promote interest in future events. We honestly don’t know if the 100 posters we hung up around town for CityCampMN were effective. In theory, a simple one page flyer could be downloaded and printed by your supporters. I could imagine this being particularly useful outside a computer science lab at a local university or at a community technology center. Consider using a or other tracked link to test use. Let us know if this worked. (Notably E-Democracy, finds door to door and in-person grassroots outreach to be extremely effective for online neighborhood engagement, but that is for a general audience.)
  15. Plan For Follow-up - Not just the usual thank yous, but be ready to identify opportunities to forge deeper connections between beneficiaries of new tools (like governments and nonprofits) and the developers. New tools are awesome, but it takes new behaviors to generate the kind of change that could make a real difference, and that takes more time and attention. Sharing highlights from the day back with the channels you reached out through would be highly strategic. (So, keeping track with a shared Google Doc or other tool of your collective outreach is a good idea as well.)
  16. Share Results – Which digital outreach tips worked best for you? Let us know. Two great places to share the results of your digital outreach are the Code for America Brigade list (with nearly 2,000 members) and the Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group.

If you really found this guide extremely useful, consider donating to or becoming a sponsor of Hack for MN/Open Twin Cities.

Need Help with Outreach? If you’d like help doing this outreach in your community and you have a sponsor willing to support it, we can help connect you to talented people. In an ideal world, an army of volunteers would break this up into pieces and make it happen. The honest truth is that to go from low hanging fruit outreach to inclusive outreach takes a real commitment of resources. Contact us for more information.


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