Reflections on our First Civic Hack Night

By all accounts, Portland’s first civic hack weekend was a heart-warming, butt-cleansing success (more on the butts later.)  So for all would-be organizers and civic hackers, I would like to share my personal experience of the weekend and events leading up to it.

When I first accepted the offer to host a National Civic Hack Day event in Portland I was honestly thinking that it would be five nerds in a room with a couple of pizzas and a 30 rack. To be fair, the event name was a total scam.  By “day” apparently they meant “a full 48 hours of your life on a rare gorgeous, sunny, June weekend in Maine.”  Not counting the month leading up to the event during which I was supposed to be doing my normal job.

That the event would lead me to meaningfully reconnect with a very dear old friend (co-organizer, Sam Frankel) and would lead me to meet and befriend councilor at-large John Anton, Mayor Brennan, members of DPW, members of the media and so, so many other smart, caring, talented, enthusiastic, wonderful people from the community was, in fact, a total surprise, and a truly awesome gift.  My lasting reaction and emotional state is nothing short of shock and awe. However, the Shock and Awe was proceeded mostly by Pain and Terror.


The week before:

In the week leading up to the event, after having met with so many enthusiastic city officials and community leaders, I was more than somewhat concerned that they would all end up sorely disappointed by the result of what could realistically be produced by what I still expected to be five nerds in a room.

Due to the lack of time to prepare, my poor organization skills, and my no-BS-like-tickets-and-shit-man-hacker ethic, we had no way of knowing how many people to expect and how many would stay to work.

We ended up with around 30 participants for the Saturday morning pitch and learn session - an awesome turnout given when we started.  After my partially coherent opening words, the mayor strolled in, Portlandia style, “just stopping by” and was immediately offered an opportunity to address the gathering - to which he jokingly replied, “are you assuming that I never pass up the opportunity to address a crowd?” - and then proceeded to address the crowd (fully coherently).

After pitches, voting, lunch and some excellent group conversations on what it means to do civic hacking, we ened up with around 10-15 working participants - so I treated that as a big win - the participation rate exceeded my expectations by 200% to 300%.  Everyone had varying levels of time that they could commit to the full weekend, which was just fine.  Of the remaining participants, only 3 or 4 had programming skills, a couple had electronics skills, a couple had design/marketing backgrounds, the remainder had business/leadership/civic experience.

We need more developers!

I found the absence of more programmers somewhat disheartening - but only slightly.  My pitch over the course of organizing was consistent that hacking is not fundamentally about software - that it is about solutions, creativity, taking action, and coming up with clever uses for the materials at hand - you know - like Macgyver.  My theme for the event was duct tape - lots and lots of duct tape.  So here we are - these 15 people (and some duct tape) are the material on hand - and we’ve got a bunch of problems that were presented - let’s do this Macgrubber.

The most highly voted projects were:

  1. A solution to make all city/state RFPs more visible to small an medium sized companies.
  2. A gamified citizen science application to assist local environmental scientists, amongst others.
  3. A map app for the Casco Bay to assist boaters and encourage environmental friendliness.
  4. A device to reduce the amount of cigarette butt litter on city streets, sidewalks and parks.
  5. A project to draft a memorandum of understanding between the hacker community and city/county/state government.

After a relatively quick in-circle chat with the workers, three groups formed to address the top five pitched projects.  Projects 1 and 5 were combined into one working group who took on those ideas with gusto and worked to research available solutions, and describe the ways in which hackers could maintain their ethical positions, not encroach on their day jobs, and support the city by providing technical solutions and an expanded knowledge base.

Another group took on 2 and 3, mostly focusing on the citizen science initiative and found some great existing tools and drafted a plan to take to the Casco Bay Estuary and Friends of Casco Bay for further refinements, potential prototype development, and an ongoing project to advance the adoption of citizen science through the power of gamification.

And, since it fit so well with my pitch for non-technical hacks, I joined the group to build and deploy a cigarette butt collection device.  The man behind the device, Mike Roylos, is my definition of a civic hacker - he’s not a programmer - he doesn’t own a smart phone - his word processor is a lined notebook.  He’s a local shop keeper and he had been working on and thinking about the problem of butt litter for a while, ever since the city told him he had to sweep the sidewalk in front of his shop to keep it free of butts.  To help address the problem, he used the things that he knows about: galvanized steel, PVC and shop tools.  What he didn’t have was the technical ability or experience to create a crowd-funded campaign for his device.

I had seen Mike’s device and pitch before - it’s a PVC pipe, capped at both ends, one removable, with a hole in it in which to deposit butts.  It’s got standard hardware-store brackets and can be attached to parking meters or sign posts to increase the number of spots that butts can be disposed of at very low cost.  Also, he had done a lot of thinking about how to handle collection and had researched a facility that can recycle cigarette butts.

"The BUTTler"

What we didn’t know was that Mike wanted to call his creation “The BUTTler.”  As soon as we heard that, we all knew it would be a hit and were off and running doodling pictures of silly looking, old-fashioned english butlers.  The butt jokes naturally appealed to me on a Beavis and Butthead level - but, no pun intended, at the same time the social and environmental impact of cigarette litter as always irritated me, even though, full admission, I have contributed to it in the past.

The tactics we applied to Mike’s solution to take it from idea to viable product came directly from Lean Startup principals.  We rapidly iterated a design to “skin” the Buttler - giving him a recognizable personality and theorizing that that the human face would capture people’s attention and draw them to it - our first hypothesis.  We spent a little time working on branding and marketing angles.  The winning slogan from participant Hazel Onsrud was “Don’t be a tosser, feed a buttler!”

We were thinking that the graphics would end up as a vinyl sticker for durability - but the whole idea needed to be put to the test first - so we hacked up a working prototype by printing the graphics on regular 8.5x11 paper and scotch taped it together - we had our Minimum Viable Product.

Once we had a prototype it was time to Get Out of the Building.  We took our first mocked-up buttler down the street to Genos Rock Club - a popular dive bar with two metal shows that night.  We knew there would be plenty of smokers outside and it was lit well enough that you wouldn’t miss the Buttler.  With vague "permission" from the city to test our idea, we bolted the Buttler to a city sign post and sat back to film the reaction.  In the evening light it was impossible to tell that it was just laser printed paper, scotch tape, spray paint and PVC - the Buttler was looking downright handsom.

See: for a picture, video, and brief description of what we ended up with.

My favorite part of that night’s stunt was that when the Geno’s bouncer asked me what we were up to - I told him that we were testing a new device to collect and recycle cigarette butts and mentioned that “some of the materials can be turned into useful stuff like ashtrays and toothbrushes.”  We took a break to have a drink and let the Geno’s crowd develop.  We came back half an hour later to see the crowd of smokers, a young woman leaning, her elbow on top of the Buttler’s head. I, somewhat tipsy at this point, hit record on my phone and asked for her reaction to the Buttler.  She said, “This?  It’s very exciting, it’s a way to recycle cigarette butts and turn them into toothbrushes and ashtrays.”  Check and mate - the rumor had spread through the crowd - social hack accomplished.

Watch the unedited, drunken video here:

During the early brainstorming session we came up with so many wonderful ideas: doing the buttlers as a city art project - each one with a different unique colorful design by a different local artist; or, when you adopt a buttler you could build the design Mr. Potato Head style - pick a hat, bow tie, face, coat and feet to create your own; or we could add cheap aurdino powered electronics to make it say funny things when you put a butt in it’s mouth; also, we very much wanted to fork the Adopt-a-Hydrant app from CfA to make an Adopt-a-Buttler app.  All of these ideas were recorded but shelved for future iteration and testing in favor of getting something out there in front of real users.

Day 2 - Civic Hacking with the City of Portland

Sunday consisted of one more publicity stunt to gather material for the indie-gogo campaign and to convince the city that they should allow lots of Buttlers to be put up all over town.  We also stopped for lunch and a suitably hacker-ish tour of the Infiniti Distillery-Pub’s first experiment in producing their own spirits.  After getting back to Peloton, we built a quick and dirty static web site using github pages as a place to put the video we collected and to capture email from anyone interested in the project.  That was the bulk of the code produced in Portland this weekend - maybe 20 lines of HTML, 10 lines of CSS and one animated GIF - by far the least amount of code I’ve ever seen produced at a “hackathon”.

The other groups built and refined their presentations to the city and associated community organizations - and continued to do the important work of figuring out how to carry all of these projects and relationships forward.

Even though there was almost no code, I would say that between a City/Hacker Memorandum of Understanding, the prospect of Gamified Citizen Science and a new, now infamous, hardware (as in hardware store) butt-collection device known as The Buttler that we achieved the objective of directly hacking our town.  The whole event was, in a very big way, a great civic hack in it’s own right.

The media responds to our hack

The media response was amazing, we made the 6:00 news and the local paper - as did the Bangor crew - probably the first time any major media outlet in Maine has ever reported on the term hacker in a positive light.  And, as we gathered the larger group back in on Sunday night for sharing our results and stories, the goodwill was overwhelming, my relief palpable.

Our next mission in Portland is to build a community run hacker/maker space with tool lending library where projects like these can live and to build an organizational body with Code for Maine to coordinate the ongoing efforts between the hackers of Maine and the city, state and county governments.  And now it’s back to the real world, running my business, pounding out code during the day, and on to Show and Tell Night at Hack Portland this Tuesday.

Still, it’s Shock and Awe.  This feeling will probably wear off - but I’d rather it didn’t.

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