During the flight to Chicago last week – an adventure unto itself I may add – I realized just how often I’d been there in the last five years. I think I’ve averaged at least one trip per year since my arrival in Birmingham.
The Magic City is often compared to Pittsburgh, with many claiming that it’s the Southern equivalent to the Steel City. I’ve never been to Pittsburgh, but I’ve been to Chicago and I see several similarities between it and Birmingham (probably more than the average person), though the ability to ride in from the airport on the Blue Line to eat ramen and potstickers for lunch downtown in Macy’s Seven on State food court is not one of them. For the record, I enjoyed the ramen; others apparently had different experiences.
While I did eat quite well last weekend, that wasn’t the main reason for the trip. I was in Chicago to attend the inaugural CityCamp at the UIC Innovation Center. I stumbled across the initial announcement for the conference via an email from BarCamp’s wiki several months back and figured that if I only attended one conference this year that it would be the one.
It came along at the right time too as I was reminded exactly why I’d started digging into the online world to begin with. I was also being optimistic that we’d be able to get a better handle on all of the issues facing those of us interested in the issue of transparency, including awareness of the issue among attendees and non-attendees and exactly what could be done with the information that would eventually be made available.
It did not disappoint, with 115 people attending the conference from across the country as well as folks from Canada and the United Kingdom. I ended up taking over a reservation from someone who could not attend at the last minute, putting me within walking distance of UIC. I also got a chance to meet another virtual friend, Sonny Gill, who recently relocated to Chicago for work. Most importantly I was able to meet new people and talk about technology with a focus on local city government. Folks like Jake Brewer, Jon Udell and my fellow Holiday Inn inhabitant, GovLoop.com founder Steve Ressler made the weekend educational and enjoyable. I was able to get Steve to share some of his thoughts about the weekend in the video embedded here.
As I said in my virtual introduction before CityCamp started, I’m still an urban geek. I still wonder how different cities work and how we can make them better. I’m convinced that working towards transparency in all that municipal governments – actually, all organizations – do will only make it easier for folks to understand what’s going on around them and enable them to take part in making it better.
Perhaps city leaders need to finally surrender to the idea of allowing citizens to see what’s going on behind the curtain. Maybe then the people will understand why they need to take ownership of their community and give voice to their concerns armed with the facts to back it up.
Now with all of that said, I’m not exactly a normal member of the community. I can read The Seduction of Place and (the book that we received from The Rockefeller Foundation), The Century of the City, as voraciously as I’d reread Snow Falling on Cedars or Kissing in Manhattan. I hopped on the plane for the ride home wondering if any of the action steps that we’d talked about would move the needle fast enough for people in cities to take full advantage. If the enthusiasm of the folks in attendance were any indication, it should be enough to begin a conversation. The innovation shown by the folks that presented during the last session made me extremely optimistic. I mentioned a couple of them in the piece that I posted for TechDrawl earlier this week.
I’m optimistic that digging a little deeper into this effort and figuring how to become more active in it will help motivate me as the year goes on. I know I’m looking forward to working on a couple of action items from CityCamp as well as seeing if I can’t get a group of interested parties together to plan a local edition of CityCamp for the fall here in Alabama.
Let’s see what happens next.
Photo: The suggestion board on Day 1. acnatta/Flickr.