We have an unofficial tradition at work (at the DC office) of going for an office-wide happy hour on a new hire’s first day. There is also usually a happy hour when someone from another office is visiting, the monthly Government Tech happy hour, and occasional impromptu happy hours. Depending on conditions, that can be as few as two or as many as six happy hours in a month. I like my colleagues well enough and would even like to get to know some of them outside of work, but the happy hour strikes me as a poor place to do it.
For starters, a workplace with a social calendar filled in with events surrounding alcohol doesn’t exactly foster healthy social relationships. People say things they don’t mean when they are drinking, behave differently, and, most problematically, think that workplace conflict can be resolved over a few drinks. The first two are obvious, but the final one only caught my attention recently.
Booze is expensive, I get that. It’s nice not to have to buy one every once in a while, but it’s merely a nice gesture when there’s unresolved resentment between the two people. Without the extra step of apology and reconciliation, there’s no new shared understanding, empathy, or peace. Moreover it puts the
person wronged in an inferior position because to others (and maybe to the person who should apologize) it looks like they’ve worked things out. Good apologies are sincere, and come from a place of humility. Buying someone a beer drowns the problem in a pool of ethanol.
Beyond the potential damage to relationships happy hours can deal,
events that center around alcohol are alienating for a variety of people: introverts, families, anybody for whom “just take an Uber” is an unsatisfactory option for getting home. But also for people who have lives outside of work. For many, spending 8 hours at the office followed by one or two more in a poorly-lit bar is stressful, off-putting, and exclusionary.
Our San Francisco offices do a potluck lunch every week. It happens during the work day and people can choose how to route around it if it gets in the way of their productivity. I’m sure this is not without problems. We do a monthly game night in the DC office. I’m hoping we can do more things like that to be welcoming of people who don’t drink, or can’t or don’t want to attend happy hours.
A friend from Gustavus was in town this week on a visit sponsored by his graduate program at the University of Minnesota and we had dinner a couple nights ago. I asked him how is week was going, hoping to hear that he had met a bunch of people like my friends: mission-driven people working for organizations that are trying to make a difference, however small, in the world. People who, when asked what they do, lead with their life work, not their stratification in the DC hustle. I was incredibly sad to hear he heard from few people who represented the DC I know.
Instead he saw a DC where people take jobs because they know it will get them closer to their next, more important job. They work extreme hours and attend happy hours every night so that they don’t miss the next opportunity. They represent their jobs and industries as impossible to get into, as if you’re nothing but your network. They represented our city as one that preys on this hustle, is impossibly expensive to live in, and miserably hot in the summer. You’d think we’re all Doug Stampers and Frank Underwoods out here.
I couldn’t help but think: what if people in my hometown, Minneapolis, represented their city this way to would-be job seekers. Minnesota is dangerously cold at least one week out of every year, uncomfortably cold for up to two months, and from October till March it’s dark before you leave work. Yet somehow Minnesota has some of the world’s largest companies, some of the
best places to work, more than 10,000 lakes and 22,000 acres of state park that hosted nearly 8 million visitors in 2012. If you’re a company or non-profit talking to out-of-state job seekers, which version convinces them to move?
That is to say, while there is some truth in that bleak representation of DC, it is neither the whole story nor every individual’s experience.
When people ask me what I do, I lead with that. When people ask what my friends do, I tell them they advocate for children’s health, publish important public opinion research, teach adult ESL students, and the dozens of other amazing, inspiring jobs my friends and neighbors have. Some of them have had a few jobs to get to the one they love, but so have my friends in Minnesota. Some work crazy hours. Some spend their evenings networking. Others have hobbies, families, and spend their weekends enjoying their lives in DC, not hustling to climb to power.
Part of what I love about living in DC is that so many of the 630 thousand people who live here are involved in work that shapes the lives of people in every corner of the world. Is the other stuff sometimes frustrating? Sure, but why focus on it? Be proud of your town, wherever it is, and be mindful of how you present it to others.
Last weeek I had the pleasure of helping 18F launch analytics.usa.gov, a public dashboard showing basic data about how many people are visiting government websites at any given moment. While we got a lot of attention for it, being featured on Gizmodo, the Washington Post (twice), and a bunch of other tech and government industry press. More surprising to me was how many people I knew that weren’t in either industry that heard about it and wanted to build one of their own. (You should, you can, here’s how)
Why does something like this matter? Gizmodo and The Post did a pretty good job of explaiing that. This dashboard shows, at a really raw level, which parts of the government ordinary citizens interact with every day. Even in the wee hours of the morning there are about as many people interacting with a government website as can fill the Packers Stadium in Green Bay. At the time Gizmodo picked it up, there were 150 people on government websites, which is large enough that no football stadium in the country could hold everyone. They also compared forecast.weather.gov’s normal traffic to what The Dress was able to accomplish and weather.gov destroyed The Dress by about 20 million.
One of my colleagues pointed out the weather.gov traffic was likely a lot of scrapers from news and weather organizations but that only reinforces how important these numbers are. As the Post put it, these numbers offer “an altogether different study of the population, one that highlights not just who we are, but what government services we find most useful.” And while the top two right now are the National Weather Service and “Where’s my Refund,” scrolling down the top 20 list reveals some surprising insights. The Astronomy Photo of the Day is routinely in the top 10. The Department of Agriculture’s home page also makes the list, but so does StopBullying.gov. Specifically, a page on how to stand up against bullies. Other top contenders also include websites for checking immigration status, Veteran’s Affaris and social security benefits, and applying for a job with the United States government.
All told, there were nearly 1.4 billion (with a b) people who interacted with the government in the last 90 days. Put another way, that’s four visits per resident of the United states every three months. They’re coming to the government for information and help they know only the US government can provide. They’re coming for public services and resources they can use to improve people’s lives.
To paraphrase the late Paul Wellstone: Public service is not about big money or power games; it’s about the improvement of people’s lives. Analyitics.usa.gov is an active expression of government “for the people, of the people, and by the people.”
PS: while writing this post, about 20,000 more people started accessing government websites.
The last in the chain (so far) is a Twitter user and digital humanities professor I don’t know and may never meet in person named Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro). Heather tried following our instructions nearly immediately after my co-author, Melody Kramer, tweeted about it. Before @heatherfro there was Moncef Belyamani, who did a tremendous amount of extra legwork completely unsolicited to help us make the post clearer. He even wrote a script called laptop that future 18F team members will be able to use to make their lives easier on day one. In addition to Moncef were the other individuals who helped us find mistakes and add to the post. And none of this includes all the people reading it right now and those who might read it in the future.
Zooming out even further, when readers run those commands they are building off the work of thousands of other people who built the tools our site uses to generate: Jekyll is the bedrock with 430 contributors, but there’s also the handful of gems that go into making Jekyll work and everybody who had a hand in those projects. On top of all that, Ruby, the language every gem is written in, is an open source project with hundreds of individuals working on a given release.
This is all to show how easily we can trace @heatherfro’s comments on twitter through a kind of supply chain of code, prose, and ideas that builds 18F’s website simply because it is open source. We don’t write all of our articles this way, but I’m hoping we do it more.
One thing about GitHub I find profoundly interesting is their drive toward expanding the idea of working in the open to realms that are not programming. Last summer they introduced PSD Viewing and Diffing and later did the same for SVGs. They improved the interface for comparing text documents like Markdown so that it’s easier to see what has changed and have one of the best wiki platforms in existence (sorry, MediaWiki, it’s true). They’re building a robust collaboration platform that facilitates the kind of exchange of ideas and knowledge creative people crave.
I’m attempting to relaunch the journalism project Danielle and I helped create in Seoul as a static site (using Jekyll right now, but Middleman is looking interesting). GitHub was just getting stated and I remember being really confused about what the point of version control was. Tearing apart that old WordPress theme was an exercise in seeing how far I’ve come as a web developer, and reflecting on the decisions I made and how many of them I would make differently if I were doing it today.
One of the first things I remembered was sitting in a cafe in Hyehwa with the rest of the IU team, crowded around our MacBooks to unveil at least two different version of the site I had worked on by deactivating and reactivating different themes from the admin interface. It was extremely frustating, and laughable now that I know how to work with branches, tags, and commit history. I also remember emailing around PSD files when we were attempting to land on a logo, and using Google Wave (yes, we actually used Wave and kind of loved it) to discuss our drafts. I’m pretty sure we would have done if not all, a lot more of that in GitHub were it the platform it’s turned into today.
This is not an advertisement, though. GitHub has some big flaws and barriers to entry for people who don’t have a lot of patience for the technical are still high. It is, at its core, a profit-driven commercial engine and the underlying codebase for GitHub is not open source and there’s no guarantee it will be around forever.
One thing I love about open source projects is their potential for immortality. WordPress has a particularly delightful open source story. Matt Mullenweg loves telling it and I’ve summarized it before, but the gist of it is that love it or not, WordPress would never have existed if not for the open source license of the project that preceeded it, b2/cafelog. That immortality and spirit of picking up a project where it was left is still fairly unique to software. Copyrights are, by law, “fixed in a medium,” they are often thought of as complete works and create strange legal issues for derivative works or remixes. If we can one day have a society where works of art are as open and communal as works of code, that would be a truly wonderful place.