civic tech

It’s Not a Hacakthon! The Texas Turnout News Event


Note: When I first started to arrange this event in June, I was working as the Director of Technology at the Texas Tribune. I departed that post at the end of July. The event was on August 26-28, and I wanted to keep helping out because I was so excited. These are my personal thoughts on the event; for the official writeup, check out Becca and Kyle’s post on eight ways to improve voter turnout in Texas. More official goodies: the Flickr photo gallery (where I got the event photos used here, taken by Bob Daemmerich), the full video of the presentation pitches,  the Twitter #TexasTurnout hashtag, and the Facebook video of the Secretary of State.

“It’s Not a Hackathon!”

“So…this is a voting-themed hackathon?”

“Don’t call it a hackathon!”

“Why not?”

I had this conversation often, but I’d known what I was getting into; one reason I’d wanted to partner with the Society for News Design is because it doesn’t use that word, Why not? Well, as research is starting to show, that word simply isn’t inclusive:

The Texas Turnout application called our event a “civic social weekend”, and in our social announcements we used “workshop”, and sometimes “prototyping event” (we realized that would explain it to tech folks). We also made clear that we were looking for collaboration, and wouldn’t be doing a competitive pitch-off.

And boy, did it pay off. We had nearly 200 applicants, from which 40 were chosen. I was so pleased to see that we had over 50% women, about an even 50/50 split between tech-design-maker and civic engagement folks, and a good spread of demographic and age diversity.

Design Thinking on Day 1

We arrived around 10 at the Umbel offices — already off to a great start! As one participant noted, it’s a “cozy industrial workspace” built in what used to be a power plant. We were thankful to Umbel for lending us the space, and if you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend visiting. The first day was spent not coding at all, which was by design — design being the active word! Becca Aaronson took the teams through design thinking exercises (more info on that here), which helped to get everyone on the same page.

These exercises let the folks who weren’t habitually making stuff understand the design thinking process. It also forced those already in tech to slow down and think through things. One coder admitted that at first they weren’t sure about the process, because they were used to just jumping in and coding, but in the end they appreciated the structure that the exercises gave to the team.

At lunch, we listened to talks giving context to the problem of voting in Texas. Secretary of State Carlos Cascos talked about how important it was to get young people engaged. UT prof Jim Henson brought some polling data, which he offered for teams to use. Texas Tribune demographics reporter Alexa Ura and founding editor Ross Ramsey offered their view of how voting worked in Texas.

In short, the first day aimed to get everyone on a level playing field. The tech folks — by which I mean people who already worked in design, development, and user experience — got a taste of the larger historical problem, and the subject matter folks — some of whom had been working on voting in Texas for 20 years — got an introduction to design thinking and how to put things online. We also used this time to emphasize the non-partisan nature of the event: the teams weren’t addressing a particular party or platform, just the question of voter turnout and engagement in general.

Innovating on Day 2

On the second day, the groups worked on their projects. We hung around to be helpful, but to be honest, we didn’t have a lot of work to do. I was blown away by how quickly the individual teams came together. The subject matter experts brought pre-made user research, so personas were quickly developed; this put the design process miles ahead of what you’d usually get in a short event. One participant talked knowledgeably about the users of the food pantry they volunteered at. Another brought expertise in how to pitch business incentives. The groups were mindful of keeping things non-partisan. It was fantastic.

Similarly, the tech folks were great at facilitating the design workflow; the teams worked with an easy, orderly rhythm, and the workspace was quietly humming with enthusiasm. As we checked in with the teams, we looked for uncomfortable body language or any blockers to success. Finding little work to do in that regard, some of the organizers formed an impromptu craft circle and philosophized about life.

Project Presentations on Day 3

On the third day the teams presented their ideas. We’d emphasized from the outset that no one should feel pressure to make a finished product, and that “digital” did not mean anyone should feel compelled to make an app or widget. That paid off: among the ideas we saw were print, social media, and business campaigns. We also saw some bigger themes emerging:

  • The problem of getting good information from government websites is HUGE. Many projects focused on giving average citizens user-friendly entry points to topics or elections the were interested in.
  • The problem of access was also huge — if you don’t know where to look, and don’t have a lot of time to spare, finding what you want becomes an even bigger problem. Many projects found ways to reach out to voters through text or social media, or focused on getting people time to vote.
  • Finally, as the Secretary of State and others emphasized, the question of voter engagement is pressing. In simple terms, this means getting people to care, or at least to feel like their voice matters.

We were over the moon when we heard both tech folks and civic workers talking about how much they’d learned from each other.

Project Round Up

Note: more information about the teams is available in the official writeup .

Team Silicon Hills – Neighborhood Vote Kit

This team was inspired by paper reminders such as workplace safety posters and mammogram reminders, and envisioned a neighborhood voting kit to pass out to neighborhood and community organizers. And as many noted, it was ironic that a team named after a high tech notion came up with perhaps the least technical solution — but it sure looked good, and you can download yours here.

Team Rainy Street – Text2Polls

Team Rainy Street decided to focus on those who were already registered to vote, but might need help finding specific information about how or where to vote. Their solution was Text2Polls, a text messaging system that would help answer their questions.

Team Bouldin Creek – Here/Say

Team Bouldin Creek — which quickly established itself as the “cool” team that wore sunglasses inside — wanted to connect semi-interested voters with issue that they would feel connected to. Their app, Here/Say, leveraged local businesses as information, and allows its users to create simple calendar reminders.

Team Sixth Street – Serve the Vote/Sirve y Vota

Team Sixth Street took on a very specific issue: getting people time off to vote. Their campaign, Serve the Vote, incentivizes business owners to give employees time off by offering a public recognition program for businesses that participate.

Team Tarrytown – Spur To Action

Team Tarrytown created Spur To Action, an app that aims to give voters easy access to information on specific issues via text. In their demo, they had the audience text “T” to a phone number in order to receive information about transportation issues.

Team South Congress – The Spark

The original concept for this The Spark was a “Humans of New York for voting”, aiming to combine the personal and political to increase voters’ feeling of engagement. In this plan, voters would share stories of times when the felt like their participation mattered, encouraging others to follow suit – and Team SoCo started asking for stories that day.

Team Rosedale – Texas Voteboto

Team Rosedale started with a very specific audience: non-yet-registered voters in Bexar County who need more information on where to begin. Voteboto is a text app that allows them to find out more information.

Team Manchaca – I Got Issues

Team Manchaca wanted to address the issue of “down-ballot” elections (meaning dogcatcher-type positions that people aren’t familiar with, that appear lower on the ballot.) I Got Issues assumes that people recognize issues more easily than positions, and so uses text to let them find out more