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It all started with a tweet. Or a string of tweets, to be exact.

Five years ago, Raleigh City Council Member Bonner Gaylord heard about CityCamp—the civic-tech focused “unconference.” Gaylord then began tweeting with CityCamp co-founders Jen Pahlka and Kevin Curry, to learn how to bring the event to Raleigh. Jason Hibbets, project manager for Red Hat’s, was eventually roped into the virtual conversation and as they say, the rest is history.

Now in its fifth year, this year’s CityCamp NC offers a multitude of ways for attendees to learn about and participate in civic tech from Thursday to Saturday this week. Part unconference, part hackathon and part startup competition, the event’s activities range from a keynote address from Mark Headd, Philadelphia’s former chief data officer, to workshops hosted by groups like Girl Develop It (GDI) and APPCityLife

Its unique format is designed to foster conversation and collaboration between local and state government officials, citizens, entrepreneurs, public sector employees, techies, students and businesses. 

And this purposeful format and mix of participants from different sectors has led to innovative solutions in years past. RGreenway, the app that helps users navigate Raleigh’s greenway system, won the competition in 2013 and is highlighted on the city of Raleigh’s website. Last year’s winner was Freewheeling NC—an app that crowdsources and maps safe bike routes. After the win, the team was selected to be one of three competitors in the NC Datapalooza competition. 

If the Triangle-hosted All Things Open conference (see our coverage of the conference here) is evidence that the state is a leader in the open movement, it’s only because CityCamp led and helped initiate the movement. Before there was All Things Open, Code for RaleighCode for Durham or any open data portal in NC—there was CityCamp. And the CityCamp leaders have been integral in originating, leading and supporting other open (source, data, government, etc.) initiatives throughout the state.

To learn about how it all began, we turned to Hibbets, co-chair of CityCamp NC since its first year, to get the details and find out what to expect from this year’s event.

CityCamp History

Like North Carolina’s first CityCamp, the idea behind the first-ever CityCamp nationally was also a result of a Twitter conversation. Co-founders Pahlka and Curry organized what they thought would be a one-off event in Chicago in 2010 to discuss how to better use the web to connect local governments with citizens. Although these discussions were frequently held within local governments and studied by academics for years, the event’s open and inclusive format must have struck a chord with participants because attendees remained close-knit online after the event. 

The event was successful, but the founders Pahlka and Curry’s already full plates. Pahlka—who would later go on to serve as Deputy CTO for Government Innovation in the White House—was busy founding Code for America. And Curry was entrenched in building Bridgebornhis business focused on devising solutions for government agencies. 

Thus, they opted for an open-source approach in expanding and continuing the unconference. Everything from the CityCamp brand to the format they used for the conference became open-source and housed on a site in partnership with GovFresh (a civic-tech blog) using the free Creative Commons content sharing platform. From there, CityCamp became what it’s known for today—a unique opportunity for citizens and local government employees to collaborate on devising innovative solutions to their community’s pressing issues using open data, web-enabled applications and other technology. 

Jason Hibbets
Jason Hibbets
After that initial Twitter conversation, Hibbets (pictured above), Reid Serozi and a group civic-minded Raleighites began meeting weekly in 2011 and CityCamp Raleigh was born. After two years, Hibbets and the CityCamp team determined the movement would be stronger as a statewide effort and rebranded to CityCamp NC to encourage participation from other North Carolina cities. The move was unique to North Carolina—CityCamps throughout the country remain city-focused. 

But the move was more than just novel. It speaks to the leaders’ collaborative nature and ability to forsee that the open movement can only grow if the open government philosophies CityCamp promotes are adopted throughout the state. 

What to Expect at this Year’s CityCamp 

CityCamp NC is different than most conferences and startup events in several ways. 

First, it’s technically not a conference, it’s an unconference. That means the participants not only get to choose which breakout sessions they will attend at the conference portion of the event, they get to choose which breakout sessions are held. Prior to the event, the CityCamp team curates session topics and ideas. At the event, the would-be session leaders give a one-minute pitch on their session. The participants then vote and the top 20 will become sessions.

The second major difference is the wide range of activities offered for participants throughout the three days. In true start-up fashion, there will be lots of short pitches. 

On Thursday night, participants will hear from different open data, open source and civic-tech experts from across the country in a series of five-minute presentations. 

On Friday, participants will learn from experts during the keynote session and panel discussions then be able to dig deeper into topics in their chosen breakout sessions. On Friday, some participants can also choose to pitch an idea, form or join a team, and enter the CityCamp competition. 

Saturday is mostly a working day. CityCamp competitors will work with their teams to flesh out their ideas and build minimum viable products or prototypes. The Code for Asheville, Durham, Greensboro and Raleigh Brigades will belatedly participate in the National Day for Civic Hacking (celebrated on June 6th) and work on different open data projects throughout the day. And if you don’t know how to hack or don’t want to compete, you can learn to do those things in hands-on learning sessions hosted by Girl Develop It and AppCityLife’s Lisa Abeyta (whose last visit to the Triangle we chronicled here).

The unconference culminates in Saturday’s competition, where the teams formed on Friday will pitch their ideas for using open data to improve their community (I'm fortunate to be a judge for the competition). 

While the format and crowd-sourced aspect are important, the biggest differentiator between CityCamp and other conferences or startup events is the opportunity it gives to citizens to learn, communicate and work shoulder to shoulder with the local government employees who serve them. 

Traditional methods of gathering citizens’ feedback—Town Hall meetings, surveys, emails, etc.—are also important, but don’t promote the same type of collaboration found at CityCamps. At CityCamp NC, government employees can hear directly from citizens, then immediately—and literally—work together to create solutions. It’s an opportunity that many government employees, and citizens, rarely encounter. 

As Hibbets says, the opportunity is important because, "it's a citizen-led and driven way for citizens to engage with their government."

And on top of all the novelties the unconference offers, it’s incredibly affordable. Students get in free, regular attenders pay $20 and government employees can attend for $10. 

Tickets are available until Thursday or they sell out, whichever comes first.