GitHub for Cities

A city is the ultimate systems engineering challenge, which is what makes it so attractive to designers and engineers. As problem solvers, we are drawn to the complexity of city life and its many challenges.

Just a note: if you’ve never used GitHub, you might want to stop here and go read this introduction to what Git is. While I did write it for as non-technical of a reader as possible, this essay will make a lot more sense if you know what forks and pull requests are.

I think the challenge of building a better city is a perfect use for GitHub. The platform really excels in opening information, showing who contributed what and allowing anyone to jump in. GitHub for cities could open up everything from GIS data and official contact information to unofficial lists of volunteers and individuals with an interest in community projects. The crowdsourced nature of a GitHub repository seems like a great platform for launching community projects.

It just feels natural to me. In the tech community, we’re on GitHub every day, building little pieces of software that solve problems. We’re forking solutions to common issues and merging in fresh perspectives. We’re giving power to individuals while harnessing the collective power of collaboration. Why shouldn’t be doing the same with our cities?

We’re engineers, problem solvers who like to make things that work. Well. GitHub was designed for groups of people working together to make things that work well. With all it’s geek-factor, it’s also an incredibly powerful way to transparently store and collaboratively edit any type of information. Information that enables community projects shouldn’t be a stretch.

We can start with hard data. Statistics and fact like population and tax revenue pulled from open sources like the census and city offices could be stored as JSON for ease of use. On top of this data, the community at large can build visualizations and reports, a GitHub pages site built with Middleman or Jekyll that presents the data in an accessible way. Then we add a directory of markdown files that contain articles and abstracts—even research—based on of these reports. It becomes a open, transparent, collaborative store for community information.

Another directory contains proposals for projects and improvements, written as Markdown, of course. The best part, though, is the core of the GitHub community: issues, forks, and pull requests. Through a well planned issue-tagging system, any member of the community can suggest that an revision be made, request that a specific piece of information be added, or toss out an idea that might form the basis for a future proposal. But this is the power of GitHub: Anyone can suggest a change; anyone can make the change themselves.

The power to take matters into your own hands is only a fork away. By creating a copy of the entire community repository, any member of the community can go beyond a simple suggestion and make the edit themselves. That edit lives in a copy of the main project, but the two versions are linked to each other. If the edit adds value, a pull request lets the administrators that there are changes to merge with the main repository.

And that is where the GitHub advantage lies. If an administrator rejects the pull request, the edits still exist as a fork. This is grassroots collaboration at its most fundamental level. It’s theoretically accessible to anyone and puts ownership into the hands of everyone involved.

This GitHub for cities idea really seems to make a lot of sense, but if you—like me—are equal parts intrigued and skeptical, you can follow my efforts to get my city on GitHub. It promises to, at the very least, be an interesting experiment.


A Podcast Shortlist

I spend a lot of time commuting to my day job. The drive in isn’t so bad, but I can spend upwards of an hour and a half getting home some days. The best use of that time: podcasts. I’ve always loved podcasts because they’re easy to digest and there’s so much variety.

In the last few months, I’ve tested out a lot of podcasts. This is my shortlist (and I highly recommend you try at least one of them):

99% Invisible

Roman Mars will always have a place in my heart. His philosophy on design and brilliant storytelling make 99% Invisible my number one podcast of all time. Usually ranging from 11 to 30 minutes, each episode tells a story of design that most people would never consider. Best part: regardless of order, each episode is better than the last. (Aside: His voice will enthrall you.)

iTunes / SoundCloud

This American Life

While a little long for my taste (most podcasts are), This American Life tells two or three stories centering on a single theme. While the themes run the gamut of American culture, the personal stories and tiny details are always revealing and often captivating.


On The Media

A critique on our national media, each episode covers a current reporting trend or issue. The discussions and interviews on current media topics, ethics, and responsibility are always thought-provoking, at the very least. I find it a little long at times, but it’s a great way to get a view on the current media climate.


Freakonomics Radio

The economics of everything, in small pieces. I love it because economics are everywhere, and the ideas presented are usually unconventional. Drawing from a wide area of knowledge is important to my work as a designer, so this financial perspective helps round out my field of attention.


Design Observer’s Design Matters

While not my favorite interviewer, Debbie Millman lands interviews with my favorite designers. I don’t listen to every episode, but the ones with Stefan Sagmiester, Jessica Walsh, Roman Mars, and Erik Spiekermann are informative and interesting. Next episode on my list: Jessica Heische.


If you haven’t gathered, my tastes are pretty narrow and I have a low tolerance for poor quality work. These podcasts are the top of my list for their production value and content. I hope you enjoy them. If there’s a podcast I need to hear, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Four Years

Four years. I made it out in four years. College was great in ways, but I can’t say that I understand why people romanticize it. I had senioritis from day one of freshman year.

School always seemed like a roadblock to actually accomplishing something. I gained some good experiences and opportunities, but an amount of time was listening to droning, hour-long rehashes of the same information it took 15 minutes to read or a enduring a 20 minute rant in response to the ever-present question, “what’s going to be on the test?”

That’s why I wasn’t a straight-A student. I studied art and journalism. It was a surprisingly uncommon combination at MTSU, considering the relationship between both disciplines, the shared interest in documenting and commenting on society, and the mutually moderate levels of cynicism.

I sent my résumé and work samples out as the end of my final semester was approaching. I got calls back within hours and had an interview the next day. I accepted a job three weeks before the semester ended.

This isn’t about how terrible higher education has become or about how lucky I was to get a job right out of college (higher education is terrible and I was very lucky). For all the wasted time, I gained a few important things. I gained friends and a few mentors. I had so many opportunities to make my own luck and other opportunities that simply fell into my lap.

I interned with the University’s marketing department, worked with the local newspaper to sell advertisements for the campus paper, managed an ad campaign, hosted an on-campus event, led in rebuilding a student organization, and made an impression on quite a few faculty members and industry leaders.

I have a lot to show for my time at MTSU, but I still wonder if I have as much to show for the last four years as I really should. I’m not proud of many of my projects because the constraints of assignments (whether topic, time frame, or supplied materials) didn’t always allow for great work. Professors rarely gave assignments that would allow for portfolio building, nor did they seem to care that their class might not be the most important thing in the world.

My senior portfolio should have been better. It could have been better. Most assignments should have been smaller, less time-consuming, and more focused. Others should have allowed wider exploration and better expression of personal ideas and goals. Side projects should have been encouraged more, and the final portfolio should have taken a more forefront role in both journalism and art classes. There should have been more opportunities to be recognized for things other than academics.

I never got a chance to intern off campus. Between working to support myself and the coursework, I could’t afford an unpaid internship. I’ve been set up with a fantastic foundation of training and given amazing opportunities, but the ability to make the most of the training and opportunities just wasn’t what it could have been.

So here’s to a year of proving myself, a year of making up for lost time, a year of making something out of the ideas that have been bubbling in my mind for the last four years. Here’s to a year of big things. While I have a lot under my belt, I’ve lost way too time. It’s about time I actually get to do something.

A Progress Report for Promise Girls Nashville

I haven’t written at all about my recent endeavors, so to bring you up to speed: Alyssa and I are working (as HelloFriend) with a local non-profit called Promise Girls. This fantastic group of people are providing help and support to young girls in the Nashville area who have been affected by sexual abuse. Our work with them includes developing a logo, web presence, collateral materials, as well as a few other pieces of design work. This is our current status on that project. We’re excited about it, and you should definitely get to know this organization.

promise girls logoThe project is chugging along nicely. In fact, the logo has been finalized. Finally! (It took a while, but the time spent was worth it. This isn’t an identity for McDonald’s.)

The interactive design concept has been completed and work on developing it into a full WordPress theme has begun. Unfortunately themes tend to be more complicated than necessary since you never know exactly how it’s going to be used. Current time frame is looking like end of June.

Alyssa has been plugging away at developing copy and a research pool, but she’s having a hard time finding reliable statistics for infographics. Also, we are waiting until we meet with the public relations team before we delve to deep into copywriting as that is heavily related to PR and we all need to be on the same page. As soon as possible, I would like to set up a meeting and talk about a messaging strategy and copy platform.

As far as the rest of the collateral, we’ve been working on business cards, letterhead, envelopes, and a few other items for you guys (think stickers, etc.). The core of the collateral kit (letterhead, business cards, and envelopes) should be finished by the middle of the month.

So that’s where the entire project stands now. Alyssa and I are very excited to be working on it and we really appreciate the opportunity to get involved with such a powerful mission as Promise Girls!

Step Into My Office

Alyssa bought me a desk, so now I have an office in our apartment. Actually, she bought herself a desk. It’s okay, though. I got the better one.

We’ve only had one desk since we moved into our apartment. A mono-desk arrangement was working fine (except for a few territorial disputes) until we decided to start this design company called HelloFriend. Now that we’re both juggling projects, promotion, and personal stuff, the desk was starting to become a hotly contested piece of property. Even the drawers were a potential touchstone for all-out war.

I needed an office space; the dining room table wasn’t cutting it. My laptop was always spread out across it until no less than 2 minutes before dinner, and it came right back as soon as we would finish eating. My art homework usually involves some form of glue or paint, and lots of paper. I’m usually making a very big mess, so having an office was getting to the mission-critical point.

We thought long and hard about how we could fit something in. We argued about it, we stewed about it, there were probably even tears about it. Then I came home one day and found our beautiful antique schoolteachers desk in a corner with a post-it note above it that read, “Justin’s Office”. On the desk were arranged in perfect height-order, were The Chicago Manual of Style, my books on advertising, my typography books, and a tiny little shrubbery. On the wall above the desk, Alyssa had hung these old 1960’s ads for Sprite and Squirt.

See, Alyssa had found another desk and bought it and set it up for herself, then she moved the other desk and set up my office as a surprise for me. It was a very happy day. And now I have a fantastic little office space to call my own, which is great. It keeps my stuff off the dining room table, too, which is always a plus.

A Message In My Sketchbook

While I was at a project meeting yesterday, my wife left a message in my sketchbook. You probably haven’t seen her work, so you likely don’t see this as a big deal. She’s rapidly becoming adept at lettering.

Check out her most recent post, Words of Wisdom, and some of her other work. She’s not famous, but she’s good. I’m incredibly jealous of her skill, but I guess I’m just lucky that I get to watch her work.