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Civic Technologist Builds National Toys for Tots Map

John Kramlich, a member of the St. Louis civic tech group OpenSTL, has built what appears to be the first online map of nationwide Toys for Tots drop-off locations, and the site has already seen significant traffic.

As a society, we have reached a point at which it boggles the mind when information is not easily available on the phones we carry everywhere in our pockets.

Spoiled by a constant flow of information and trivia, when some bit of information is not quickly available on the Internet — heaven forbid — we get mad. Well, some of us. Others take action. Just look at John Kramlich, who noticed that the charity organization Toys for Tots didn’t have an easily searchable map of places where folks could drop off donations in his community. It was Christmastime last year, and Kramlich set out to change this during a meeting of OpenSTL, which is the civic tech group where he lives in St. Louis, Mo.

Toys for Tots had a searchable map of locations for its offices, but not for the places where regular people could make quick donations. To remedy this, Kramlich hand-built spidering software that went onto the Toys for Tots website and grabbed all the info about drop-off locations. He used a searchable map template from a fellow civic tech volunteer, subsequently moving location info to Google Fusion tables and geocoding it so he could pull it all up on a map. An easily searchable resource was born.

Kramlich had a little bit of experience building these kinds of resources — in 2014, he built a directory site with information about 1.4 million nonprofits nationwide — but the map was a new project. As he did the work, the scope of his plan expanded.

“Originally it was just going to be for St. Louis,” Kramlich said, “but the code to do 20 or 20,000 would be the same.”

Kramlich, who by day works for a local e-commerce company, has now mapped drop-off locations for the charity nationwide, all roughly 22,000 of them. He posted a link to his map on social media, watching as roughly 600 hits (modest but sizable enough for a project without promotion) rolled in, some of them organically coming from Google searches, which is no easy feat, as anyone who has ever worked in the search engine optimization (SEO) space can attest.

This is all quite the heartwarming story for the holidays, with its idea that a little bit of tech expertise can be used to enable additional donations, which would in turn be responsible for more toys finding their ways to the arms of needy kids. It’s sweet, but it’s also an example of how volunteer civic tech efforts, including OpenSTL and dozens of other similar groups that have popped up in cities across the country in recent years, can serve their communities.

Oh hey, and look here: the front-end code that Kramlich used to build his project is based on a searchable map template built by Derek Eder, one of the founders of Chi Hack Night, a Chicago-based civic tech movement that recently evolved from a weekly meetup into a full-blown nonprofit community group.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.