A Brief History of The Civic Cloud Collaboration

Originally published in Red Clover, Newsletter of Marlboro College Graduate & Professional Studies

We are all seeking new and better ways to collaborate, but figuring out the nuts and bolts can be surprisingly hard. In this story, Nonprofit Certificate & BBVT alum James Lockridge describes how his organization joined with seven other groups to create the Civic Cloud, an innovative program of national significance.  The Civic Cloud is a platform for creative development, experimentation, and utilization of gigabit applications created by the public, for the public, to benefit the Burlington (and Vermont) community in a non-commercial setting... and it couldn't have happened without state-of-the-art cooperation.

From theory into practice: Innovative action from our alum Big Heavy World’s James Lockridge on an 8-way collaboration

Building the future sometimes actually comes down to plugging one thing into another until the blinking lights come on to signal you’ve arrived. As a nonprofit with a social mission, we want that future to be imbued with values. The Civic Cloud — an intensely technology-based project in Burlington — is a beacon, with blinking lights, of successfully enriching a community both electronically and socially at the same time. It’s powerful, like if Star Trek’s Borg were the Peace Corps. Really.

The Civic Cloud has a complex history that is especially interesting if you’re looking for models of collaboration. It’s material core is a foundation of servers and technologies that live on those servers, providing a platform for creative development, experimentation, and utilization of gigabit applications created by the public, for the public, to benefit the Burlington (and Vermont) community in a non-commercial setting. Fiber-optic gigabit networks are 100 times faster than the average broadband connection, which is fast in a revolutionary way. The Civic Cloud was built with resources and effort from among eight collaborating organizations, and creates a needed bridge between the City of Burlington and a national campaign to advance the Internet far beyond its current speeds. How it came together — and what it stands for — is the story that follows.

Big Heavy World was founded during the pre-dawn hours of the Internet, when it was first emerging into the daylight of public awareness. The organization seized on the Internet to promote local music and with a crew of volunteers, mostly high school and college aged, it culture-hacked its way with emerging technology toward a successful statewide mission of preserving and promoting music made in Vermont. The Internet has always been at its side, and as you’ll see, the Civic Cloud is the Internet.

“Big Heavy” is a labor of love, and spawned from a definitively ad hoc origin. People with a love for music got together to have fun supporting it. But as the work gained momentum it became apparent that skills needed to be brought to it to remain responsible. Marlboro’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management brought exposure to a world of confidence-building insight, pulling the curtain back on the wizard and shining a bright light on essential administrative knowledge. The Benchmarks for a Better Vermont Performance Institute made it plain how changing the world for the better is a community-wide endeavor and that within our individual roles, we can create focused, reportable progress. Marlboro has played a key role in preparing Big Heavy World to be an effective and principled community builder.

How Big Heavy World accomplished our mission is as important as what it accomplished: With an inclusive outlook that involves every volunteer in support of every Vermont artist, regardless of skill level, talent, or any other factor that might exclude anyone from anything. And the work is accomplished in collaboration with others – other organizations, community supporters, businesses, all sharing a vision for uplifting Vermont’s culture. It embodies a ‘we can do this together’ ethic, and has been witness to the far-reaching effect of collaboration — how it amplifies effort to create ever greater and wider benefits. It shares that spirit with others, and that’s the spirit of the Civic Cloud.

As Big Heavy World eased through its tiny grassroots history and gained experience with technology and confidence in its work, it aimed higher and higher. In 2013 a basic decision was made to rebuild the web site — the centerpiece of its community-building and promotion of Vermont’s music — and to rebuild it using current standards, responsiveness to mobile devices, and make the statement that even as a crew of volunteers the organization could make Vermont proud. It sought support to accomplish this, and reached out to Bradley Holt of Found Line, a prominent software developer and community builder in the Burlington area.

Holt, his business partner Jason Pelletier, and Big Heavy World, through a combination of formal processes and indelicate cheerleading of one-another, established a local Code for America Brigade called Code for BTV, a loose alliance of regional programmers, designers, and ‘civic hackers.’ With Code for BTV’s first two-day hackathon event in June, 2013, work began on the new Big Heavy World web site and Code for BTV began bringing an alliance of friends and programming talent together that would lead in a straight line toward the Civic Cloud.

Burlington, the city, has been blessed with gigabit connectivity for years through its city-owned utility Burlington Telecom. But as Burlington Telecom weathered political misfortune this intensely useful and rare resource went unnoticed and underutilized, by far. At the same time, a national White House-sponsored campaign to raise awareness of the usefulness of high-bandwidth networks formed. A small number of communities across the United States had access to gigabit networks, and by highlighting new uses and applications that are only possible on gigabit connections, US Ignite hoped to spark an evolution of the Internet. They were shoving the Internet into the future, and looking for shoulders to lean into the effort. The City of Burlington could contribute its muscle, if it had a corps committed to imagining-up gigabit apps, as a true partner in the US Ignite campaign. Enter, Code for BTV.

Having established a framework for collaboration, producing hackathons and monthly civic hacker meetups, and amassing a family of partners that shared in a vision of applying volunteer talent to solving social problems with technology, Code for BTV was naturally positioned to recognize the potential of a Burlington Telecom / US Ignite linkup (the local initiative to connect Burlington with US Ignite became ‘BTV Ignite’). Holt and Pelletier applied their coalition-building magnetism to bringing together the City of Burlington and five other organizations to take on the task of empowering Burlington to unite with US Ignite: CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, Channel 17 / Town Meeting Television, Found Line, Laboratory B (a hacker space), Regional Educational Television Network (RETN), and Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM). Big Heavy World front-loaded the project with five servers; Google had generously donated them and sharing them to create a wider circle of community benefit was a matter of habit and instinct.

The Civic Cloud vision is one of collaboration to achieve a greater goal, and at present the wrenches are twisting, so to speak, especially in the hands of CCTV. They’re readying the servers, configuring and ‘staging’ them for a move to a space dedicated to connecting them directly to the gushing gigabit fire hose at Burlington Telecom. When all are in place, several first virtual residents will begin demonstrating the project’s potential: Lakecraft, an educational, multi-user game aimed at youth and adults that ‘gamifies’ data describing the Lake Champlain Basin’s geography; a network of WordPress sites that will help nonprofit organizations stay connected with the public and rebound resiliently from natural disasters; a network of high definition audio and video broadcasting that will enable Big Heavy World’s concert streaming and distribution of local public, educational, and government television partner’s content; and at the start of it all, a collection of volunteer-developed applications and the state-of-the-art website of Big Heavy World, preserving and promoting Vermont-made music.

The Civic Cloud, at this point, will be a blank slate, test bed, and accelerator for gigabit applications that create economic, educational and community benefit. A ‘maker space’ for the Internet, it will be a world-class playland for programmers to invent the next generation of the Internet and demonstrate its fantastical usefulness. This vision has a firm footing in reality, and a recent Knight Prototype Fund grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation underscores that. The foundation provided $35,000 to the Civic Cloud Collaborative to create this first of a kind model of next-generation cooperative, community infrastructure.

Three of the Civic Cloud partners are broadcasters with missions of providing public access to media production. They’ll take center stage during the second phase of the Civic Cloud, as it formalizes how it will open its doors to community participants. In the meantime, the shining — and blinking — future is on the horizon, and the Civic Cloud is holding the door open to it for everyone.

Links: Big Heavy World, http://bigheavyworld.com Civic Cloud Collaborative,
http://codeforbtv.org/collaborations/civic-cloud/ Code for BTV, http://www.codeforbtv.org Found Line, http://foundline.com US Ignite, http://us-ignite.org BTV Ignite, http://btvignite.com John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, http://www.knightfoundation.org Knight Prototype Fund, http://www.knightfoundation.org/grants/201347635/ Code for America, http://codeforamerica.org City of Burlington, http://www.burlingtonvt.gov Burlington Telecom, http://burlingtontelecom.com CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, Channel 17 / Town Meeting Television, http://www.cctv.org Laboratory B, http://www.laboratoryb.org Regional Educational Television Network (RETN), http://retn.org Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM), http://vermontcam.org Google (Giving), https://www.google.org

James Lockridge is the Executive Director of Big Heavy World, a volunteer-staffed organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Vermont-made music in a setting that empowers and educates youth. He earned a Marlboro College Graduate and Professional Studies Certificate in Nonprofit Management and completed the Benchmarks for a Better Vermont Results-Based Accountability Performance Institute. Big Heavy World is presently advocating for designation as Vermont’s state music office.