Client Spotlight: Our Towns

A High-flying Story that Matters

In Disney’s movie Up, young Russell is working hard to earn his final Wilderness Explorers’ badge and needs to find a person with a bit more wisdom (and some advanced years under the belt) to assist in crossing a street. Instead, Russell finds himself on an extreme adventure in an exotic land with the septuagenarian Carl Fredricksen, chasing mythical creatures, while being chased by talking dogs. Russell just wanted to be helpful, but he uncovered an abundance of goodwill for others because he was determined to provide his own unwavering willingness and effort to the problem. 

There’s another story that reveals true-life experiences–bound together through the determination to overcome hardships–that had an amazing intersection with a fledgling, two-year-old tech company called Bitwise Industries when they were approached by two journalists in 2014. Fast forward many years and you will see how lives were changed through the process of telling stories about the human experience through a book, a movie, and a website. But let’s start with the book.

The Curtain Rises

What is storytelling? According to Google, storytelling is “the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.” This story begins with James and Deborah Fallows, two world-traveled, award-winning journalists who have written stories for numerous publications like The Atlantic for decades. In 2013, this married couple set out on a trip to uncover America’s culture and character and wound up writing a book together entitled Our Towns: a 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America

Crisscrossing the country in their Cirrus SR22 aircraft, they explored the areas that were “away from the big, hyper-publicized cities,” as James writes in Our Towns, looking for “places that had faced adversity of some sort, from crop failure to job loss to political crisis, and had looked for ways to respond.” 

They traveled to small communities, spoke to local business owners, mayors, artists, students, typical everyday residents, and saw the shock of economic and political hardships the people in these communities endured. However, what they discovered at the heart of these hardships was an emerging pattern of reinvention of the civic and economic renewal of America’s towns. After four years of travel, covering 100,000 miles together, stopping in more than 25 cities, they realized that the ideas and beliefs of an American renewal were happening at the community level, but those successes were not being talked about outside those community borders. 

The retelling of these small-town success stories in their book became a national bestseller. Eventually, Our Towns became an HBO documentary that featured eight towns from the book, filmed over two years, and was completed in 2019 just before the pandemic. However, through all of the positive press for the book and the documentary in production, the Fallows saw that their work uncovered a groundswell of like-minded people in communities across the country who were working toward similar goals of breathing life into communities, and the Fallows knew they needed to do more than get the word out.

The Movement

With an HBO documentary about to launch and further amplification of their book’s call to action, the Fallows needed a resource to bring their mission into the 21st century and founded Our Towns Civic Foundation (OTCF), a nonprofit organization, established to bring awareness to the often overlooked towns around the United States. The foundation highlights local innovation as a road map to reshape and redefine the future of their communities. The hope is that like-minded folks who are passionate about social innovation visit the OTCF website, share information, and magnify their collective influence to make positive changes. 

The Fallows turned to Bitwise Industries–the at-the-time young tech company they interviewed seven years prior as a part of their trip around the country–to develop a dynamic website to serve as the digital hub. The goal of the website was to share the success and failures of innovative people, businesses, and civic organizations around the country that have been solving the problems of their communities and reach those like-minded people who are passionate about social innovation. When they visited the website it needed to be easy to navigate, share information, and magnify their collective influence to make positive changes. 

The development of a functional and aesthetic website against a very tight deadline was a challenge Bitwise Industries was ready and willing to take on. The OTCF site was developed using a WordPress backend, with a Stripe integration allowing visitors to donate to their cause directly through their site. Visitors could also sign up for newsletters or mailing lists directly through this new platform, which integrates with MailChimp, their chosen CRM. The build included the expansion possibilities for an e-commerce component, that can be added at a later date, where visitors can purchase published works directly; and not divert them to a third-party site. 

“One of the things that really impressed us most was the flexibility of the team; I think we were pretty demanding. We really paid a lot of attention to detail and not only were they flexible to iterate different versions with us, they were very patient. We came around from a lot of talking and a lot of different steps in the process to an actual reality that we thought was just fabulous. But it wasn’t a straight line. It was more of a zigzag line, where we would just go back and forth and take some of each other’s ideas or reject some of each other’s ideas. And we didn’t get the feeling that anyone felt stepped on. We certainly didn’t. We all came out of it having learned something and having a beautiful product.” – Deborah Fallows

The Finale

The Our Towns Civic Foundation has a beautiful, functional website, and a home for their vast digital collection of articles on every city and town they report on. Every detail is categorized and simple to navigate and they are able to highlight more of the important work happening all around the United States. This new platform has enabled them to share stories, connect people to resources and information, and inspire a new generation of leaders who will make the positive and practical steps of renewing American life at the local level. 

What’s Your Story?

Our story includes a riveting plot, colorful characters, a tangible theme, and a conclusion that is still being written across the country to this very day. The point is positive change happens when people work together toward a common goal that benefits all involved. 

What’s your story? How are you bringing people together? Just like Russell’s desire to make a difference in Up, it hinged on an impactful connection that was positive and mutually beneficial between people. Your digital presence can be the bridge that brings people together. It might not be for a social cause, that’s okay. Maybe you have an innovative product to sell in the ag or health industry, or maybe you have a startup that needs a dynamic website or e-commerce platform. Whatever digital tools you need to achieve your desired business goals–whether they’re revenue or industry-changing goals–consider those tools the difference in a successful future that moves people to action.

Let Us Help

Technology Consulting is the Software Development-as-a-Service division of Bitwise Industries that specializes in custom software development, managed services, and Salesforce implementation. Our technology professionals have deep experience applying cutting-edge technology solutions to help business entities of all sizes navigate the technology landscape to find solutions to optimize their operations. 

If you’re interested in uncovering the tech possibilities available to your organization, click this link to schedule some time with one of our experts. 

This post was written by Jeff Rickels, Technical Writer for Bitwise Industries. When he’s not writing, he’s wondering about unsung heroes like the guy in the movie Tombstone who casually catches a bottle that was inadvertently knocked off the table and basically saves the scene and an incredible performance by Val Kilmer and Stephen Lang. (Check the 1:02:30 mark.)

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