How to build tech tools that make Seattle better

Live in Seattle and want to learn something useful? Type your address into this web app. It’s a one-stop shop for all the political, educational, and other city-based boundaries your home falls into.

“This location is inside 14 Seattle-related boundaries,” the app told me (Mónica), and then gave me map after map of my police precincts, political districts, school zones, and even the area my zip code covers, which, I realize, I’ve never seen drawn out before.

The Seattle Boundaries app is a handy tool to begin to understand how city services affect you. But it was not created by the City of Seattle. It’s primarily the work of Seth Vincent and seven other contributors. Seth, a freelance developer, is the founder of a grassroots civic tech community called Open Seattle.

What’s civic tech? It’s technology that’s out to serve the public good, sometimes by making civic services more accessible and effective. It’s also a kind of public statement – the idea that people, not just government, can build tools that help residents better understand and interact with the institutions, data, and public services that affect their lives. The civic tech scene has been booming here in recent years, with civic “hackathons” troubleshooting city issues and even a brand new City of Seattle Civic Tech program supporting the work.

The Open Seattle community and its rotating corps of volunteer contributors has helped develop over a dozen projects since it launched three years ago, including a local minimum wage calculator, a big SeattleWiki, and Hey Duwamish!, a community mapping platform to keep track of the clean up of Seattle’s Duwamish River.

But today Open Seattle is at a crossroads. After the election we just had, people around the city want to work together in what feels like drastically uncertain times. And Open Seattle, which has struggled to complete some of its projects and to draw a broad selection of people to design and lead them, is looking for new energy.

All of this leads to some compelling questions: What new civic tech tools does Seattle need most right now? And what can organizations like Open Seattle do to gather the people and skills to build those tools well and get them in the hands of all Seattleites?

Open Seattle is hosting a meetup tonight to start addressing all this. More on that in a minute.

First, let’s back up.

In 2013, Seth was working with a small group of locals to gather key information about the city into an ambitious SeattleWiki, a kind of city encyclopedia. When the group got interested in sparking other civic tech projects, they decided to become affiliated with the national civic tech organization Code for America and Code for Seattle was born. (Seth no longer considers the group to be officially associated with Code for America, though it’s still listed as a volunteer “brigade” on the Code for America website).

“Code for Seattle” changed its name to “Open Seattle” last year for one main reason: Coding alone doesn’t cut it. Open Seattle attracted some good developers in its first three years, but what they also needed — and didn’t draw enough of, Seth said — were storytellers, people who understood city policy, and organizers to help guide the projects in a clear direction.

The organization needs to be more “open” in another way, too. It needs to be more demographically diverse.

“It’s not just about what skills people have, but also what backgrounds and outlooks and experiences they have,” Seth said. “We’re not going to get a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds if it’s all white men that stare at their computers all day.”

So what sort of projects could Open Seattle help shepherd after the election? Seth has a couple ideas he’ll bring to tonight’s meetup, like an easy way to track how federal funding comes into the city.

He’s already gotten several applications for the five Open Seattle volunteer organizer positions he’s hiring for. The timing was telling.

“There have definitely been a couple applications where I can tell, they did this Wednesday morning, after the election,” Seth said. “That’s pretty cool.”

How to get involved