The Story Behind the Houston Writeathon

Back in October, I was in San Francisco for the Code for America summit. It was an inspiring trip, with civic hackers from around the world converging to share stories about technology and community development. Of course, the best stories travel over beers.  That’s exactly how Rebekah Monson told me about the writeathon she organized in Miami.  Right away, I wanted to try it in Houston.

So, what is a writeathon?

We told people that it was a gathering to improve government communication.  In reality, a writeathon is the writing, marketing, and PR equivalent of a hackathon.  It’s an excuse for like-minded professionals to work side-by-side.  It’s a celebration of the skills that give us something in common.  It’s a good time, if you’re into that kind of thing.

I’ve organized hackathons before, so I was prepared for the usual set of confused, then skeptical looks.  But most people got it right away. I was excited to see who would show up.

First, we got the band together.

I didn’t want to produce the event by myself.  So when I got back to Houston, I called up three of my favorite people: JoAnn Takasaki, Daniel Cohen, and Nicole Moss.  To my surprise, they didn’t know one another!  Over the last few years, I’ve worked on smaller projects with all three of them, and I knew they would get along.

Having a capable, reliable, and drama-free team is very important to me.  All too often, these collaborative events are organized by self-selected volunteers with limited experience working together.  JoAnn, Dan, and Nicole are all really good at what they do, and really nice to be around while they do it.  I feel very fortunate that they all agreed to be co-organizers.

We’re also very fortunate to have the leadership of Council Member Ed Gonzalez, who promoted the writeathon several times in council chambers and online.  His support really empowers us to do what we do.

People had to know.  So we told them.

We started marketing the event before we had much structure to the day.  Since we had no idea what the demand would look like, we wanted to get a sense of the headcount before figuring out the event format.  It turns out, we got about 50 RSVPs right away just from our individual social media efforts.  We saw another 50 RSVPs in the days leading up to the event.

From what I’ve seen, some communities struggle with the marketing component of the event.  Aside from telling everyone we know, there were really only two other things that we did to drive attendance:

  • We reached out to a ton of community partners and asked them: (1) will you help promote the event? and (2) will you help us curate sample projects?  The response was tremendous.

That’s it. There is no substitute for getting out and talking to people that you know.  We also had the good fortune of working with awesome community partners like First Person, The Black Sheep Agency, Aleberry Creative, C2 Create, Texans for Economic Progress, and Social Media for Smart People who promoted the event to their networks frequently.

Finally, we wanted to have a few surprises in store for the participants. We contacted several notebook makers and got sample products from Field Notes, Word, Whitelines, Rhodia, and Zebra Pen.  Then Pop Shop Houston turned it into an awesome notebook bar:

Then we figured out what to do.

Even though the event resembled a hackathon, writing words is different than writing code.  We trimmed the event to six hours, and ended with a happy hour.

One of the biggest challenges was finding enough sample projects that were exciting and achievable. Fortunately, we had several people from the City who donated their time and expertise to make their backburner projects come to life.  I’m looking at you, Jackie Smith, Jesse Bounds, Frank Bracco, Mark Cueva, Melissa Ragsdale Darragh, Jerry Peruchini, Scott Ward, and Matt Deleon.

We sat down with them ahead of time and tried to uncover projects that were going to be helpful.  Because it was a short event, we needed lots of little, bite size projects.  With outcomes uncertain, we decided to scrap the usual presentations and judging.  Instead, we walked across the courtyard and had a couple of beers.  Which is a shame, because some of the submissions were pretty amazing.

This is just the beginning.

We’re rounding up all of the projects and circulating them to the right people inside the city.  Once they get a chance to review, we’ll post the summaries here.  In the meantime, be sure to check out Sarah Theresa’s awesome event recap.

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors, and serves on the board of two Houston nonprofits. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.