Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.
Shauna Gordon-McKeon is a freelance writer, researcher and programmer living in the Boston, MA area. She’s also a volunteer organizer for various open government and open software causes. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I first found out about the Sunlight Foundation, I explored the website thoroughly. I tried out the projects, read through the last few months of news, joined the labs mailing list and clicked on the link to their meetup page. At the meetup page, there were 20 or so members listed, and a single meetup proposed, lonely and in limbo with no location or date specified. "Suggest a time or place!" the page encouraged me. So I did. A few minutes later, I got an email from meetup.com saying, "Congratulations! You are organizing a Sunlight Foundation meetup!"
Instantaneously - and unintentionally - I had become the organizer for the Boston Sunlight meetup group, which now has 60 members and has been meeting at least once a month for over a year.
From our very first meeting, I was struck by how involved in the transparency movement many of our members already were. Michael Morisey had cofounded Muckrock, a website for filing Freedom of Information Act requests, which helps process, analyze and release the results. (In 2010 Sunlight funded Mucrock’s namesake community-powered freedom of information request tool that files, tracks, publishes and helps analyze government documents and data). Adam Friedman, a long-time election reform advocate, was getting ready to launch a website, Election Stats, which displays the results of every election in Massachussetts over the last thirty years. Tessa Simmonds had traveled all the way out from Northampton, MA, a representative of Free Press, an organization that advocates for media reform and Internet freedom.
These people did not need a meetup to get them active in the transparency movement. They already were. Others, like myself, were looking to get more involved but not really sure how to do so. Some people were just curious what "Open Government" even was. We all expected different things from that meetup, but it seemed to me like we each walked away, a few hours later, excited and satisfied. Since that first meetup, our meetings have always served many purposes for many people. Some enjoy having a place to debate the goals of transparency and the obstacles towards achieving it. Some come to contribute to group projects, others to find people to help them with their own. Many come to network - to share information about transparency projects in Massachusetts and across the globe, to get recommendations for tools, data sources, campaigns or even jobs.
I can't say that I've hit on the perfect formula for running meetings, but I do have some tips and tricks that seemed to have helped me:
Create a google group or other mailing list beyond the meetup page. Meetup Everywhere is very limited, and most of our online conversations and planning have to happen on our mailing list.
Meet regularly. We try to have a monthly project night that happens the same day every month, so people can plan well ahead for it. You might also try using an online scheduling tool such as Doodle to help as many folks as possible attend.
Reach out to the people that seem most excited about the movement, and make sure that you schedule meetups on days they can come. Meet enthusiasm with enthusiasm, instead of focusing on increasing the raw numbers of the group.
Try to find a group project to work on. Try to make it one that isn't just programming. There are a lot of different skillsets - writing, researching, editing, designing - that can be incredibly helpful, but also a lot of people who assume they can't help because they can't code.
Find related groups and work with them. We've had meetups at Hacks/Hackers (a data journalism group) and with the Boston Python User Group.
Go to TransparencyCamp, if you can. It's held by the Sunlight Foundation every year in Washington, D.C., and is a great way to meet activists in your area and make connections to groups around the globe.
Organizing a meetup can be as time-consuming or as effortless as you want it to be. If you don't have the time to spare to start up group projects or recruit speakers for meetings, that's okay! The most important thing is just to start scheduling meetups. So go to the Sunlight Meetup page and suggest a time and place. See what happens.
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