BURLINGTON — Big Heavy World recently took over coordination of Code for BTV, hoping to inject new energy in to a “brigade” of volunteer technologists trying to create and maintain civic software and open data projects in greater Burlington.
Big Heavy World is tech-savvy nonprofit music development organization. James Lockridge, its executive director, called Code for BTV, “A platform for bringing together people who have technology-related skills, to apply those skills to creating community benefits.” He referred to participants as “civic technologists,” which has largely come to replace the phrase “civic hacker,” as it is more inclusive of the spectrum of skills beyond coding — such as design, project management and archiving — participants are bringing to the movement.
Code for BTV is an officially recognized brigade of Code for America, a national nonprofit founded in 2009 to promote the use of technology and access to data to help make government services simple, effective and easy to use. The three pillars of its work relate to health, justice and economic development. Code for BTV gained recognition as an official brigade in 2013. Founding captains Jason Pelletier and Bradley Holt have moved on, with longtime collaborator Big Heavy World a logical successor.
To refocus Code for BTV, Lockridge, as brigade captain, is bringing Big Heavy World’s experience in community building and multipartner projects.
“My experience at Big Heavy World has been immersion in community building, recognizing the interests of multiple stakeholders, and creating opportunities for diverse individuals and organizations to come together to create a greater social good,” he said.
“As a music office, we bring kids together, organizations together, and serve the music community,” he added, “Doing so brings benefits to everyone involved — professional skills building, exposure to technology — so the two initiatives are like parallel universes.”
Code for BTV engages technologists in regular Hack Nights and Hackathons. The efforts of local brigade members have resulted in more than 20 civic projects initiated since a National Day of Civic Hacking in 2013. These range from developing a “green” printing application for Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library, helping the city launch an open data platform, building websites for dozens of local nonprofits, and partnering with BTV Ignite in leveraging Burlington’s internet network as a test bed to develop a new generation of applications.
Lockridge said his role is not just to understand specific technologies, but to create opportunities for service. He said an active core of brigade members has been meeting to develop a framework for moving forward. One of those members, Micah Mutrux, said participation in a project called Random Hacks of Kindness led him to Code for BTV.
“I’ve been developing the belief that while there is a lot of extracurricular coding going on in Burlington, it doesn’t have direction,” Mutrux said.
For BTV Hack, he was one of 75 participants who spent 24 hours developing projects. “That’s a combined 1,800 hours,” he said.
Mutrux said there was no lack of people or motivation to push projects forward. “Seeing that happen is the drive for me, and helping make projects successful and seeing someone take ownership to sustain successful projects. And that’s what drew me to Code for BTV.”
Code BTV is involved in several cutting-edge projects. It is one of eight local partners in the Civic Cloud Collaborative, which is a platform for public, noncommercial internet applications and digital creative works building on Burlington’s fiber-optic network.
Mutrux said Code for BTV worked with ECHO, the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, to produce Lakecraft, a free Minecraft world model of the Lake Champlain Basin.
Lockridge noted Big Heavy World has also been involved with the LOLA (low latency audio-visual streaming technology) initiative.
“Big Heavy World joined with Fletcher Free Library and Burlington Telecom to demonstrate LOLA,” Lockridge said. “A direct network was created between two distant cities with a latency (lag or delay) so minimal as to not be perceptible by human senses. It allowed us to coordinate musicians playing in Burlington with musicians playing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With no latency, they were able to jam effectively as musicians; sound and visually.”
Both Mutrux and Lockridge see potential impact and partnership roles for area businesses, and for enhancing and sustaining Vermont’s workforce.
Mutrux said technologists bring their skill sets from work to Code for BTV projects, where they have a chance to stretch them. There are opportunities for professional and personal development and networking.
Mutrux added Code for BTV offers the chance to move projects that benefit community from “great idea” to reality. “Communities around the country that offer such opportunities and connections are more attractive to such workers.”
Lockridge said businesses can help move Code for BTV forward. “Certainly, we have larger events — hackathons, conferences — that need sponsorship, and they can support us in that way,” he said. “But many also have highly skilled people on their staffs. Some are businesses that support community engagement by their employees, and Code for BTV is an outlet. Business may also have access to data that the community could benefit from if it were shared.”
Keeping youth in Vermont
Ultimately, Code for BTV supports statewide efforts for keeping young people in Vermont.
“Big Heavy World has existed for 20 years, staffed largely by college and high school-age volunteers. They find our environment, which is richly imbued with technology, compelling. We recognize this … seizing on opportunities as they emerge, experimentation and free-form exploration is fun. For people to apply themselves to create something new, that takes us across a barrier, whatever the project is — that aspect of the human spirit has an outlet in Code for BTV.”
Keeping young people in Vermont includes recognizing their energy, and putting their skills to work in meaningful ways.
“Vermont is a creative, innovative, entrepreneurial environment — that’s our message,” Lockridge said. “We are building an actual community of people in industries that the state is trying to celebrate. … Offering opportunities to see their skills respected — and used — contributes to their making a decision to make a life here.”