The value of small wins in building the civic innovation community

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to civic innovation communities that are just starting up is to start with small wins.

Chicago’s civic innovation ecosystem has been up and running for awhile and we’re currently working on some big, substantial, and complicated projects. The ecosystem here has launched companies, startups, conferences, and boasts one of the largest hack nights in the country.

Even though it seems like Chicago is far far ahead, these efforts didn’t come out of nowhere fully formed. It’s taken time, investment, and effort to get the civic innovation engine running at full power. It’s also a process that’s repeatable. What’s helped to build the ecosystem here has been a series of small wins that grew into bigger ones. With each small win, we spread the news of what we can do with civic innovation – and that gives the community members more credibility to do bigger things.

A good example is the work surrounding the Chicago Department of Public Health. The Chicago Department of Public Health was one of the first government agencies to engage in the civic technology community. (September 11th, 2012 at OpenGov Hack Night to be exact!) That session at hack night resulted in the Chicago Flu Shot app by Tom Kompare. That app quickly spread and was hailed as a great way to for civic hackers to help their cities fight the flu.

Now, the Chicago Department of Public Health is working on advanced apps like Foodborne Chicago and working with Smart Chicago to run an entire Smart Health Center program.

But it started out small.

The small wins strategy isn’t just a Chicago phenomenon. In Philadelphia, a lawyer named Corey Arci was attending his first Code for Philly meetup when he found a derelict bike tracking app from Austin. He worked with others to redeploy the app to Philadelphia. He then worked with Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to launch a regional study using CyclePhilly data.

Small wins turn into bigger wins.

When first starting out, a small win can ease the fears of those in government who may see the ‘civic hacking’ term and freak out a little. An example of a small win can be something as simple as putting dots on a map. (Like the flu shot app) or redeploying an existing app (like CutePetsDenver).

It doesn’t matter how small the project is. The point is to show what’s possible and then turn around and go. OK, with this static list of flu shots locations we could do this. With a little more open data and support we could do this! 

The other major part of this is that after you get the small win – you have to tell the story. Telling your story not only builds your group’s credibility, but it also helps attract people to come join your group. If you don’t tell your story – nobody else will. Don’t be afraid to brag after you get your wins.

From there, you can use that momentum to help work on other projects which will yield bigger wins. Powerhouses take time to build, but they all start small and the steps are all repeatable. None of this is magic.

If you’d like help in getting your first small win – consider checking out the Organizing Resources page on the National Day of Civic Hacking website.