InfoWorld: Code for America. Think global, code local.
Code for America is bringing positive change, recruiting developers to apply simple Internet technologies to everyday municipal interactions
Recently I was forced to interact with my local government. This involved several pieces of paper being signed and notarized, as well as multiple trips in person to nondescript offices. My staff had to shepherd me around town and calm me down while I dealt with my psychological rejection to all things that require my participation in monotony ("seriously, isn't there an app for this?").
I am not alone in my personal pain. All around the country, small businesses and individuals struggle with a special kind of divide: Local government hasn't joined the digital generation. In a fast-moving, complex world like ours, how can we have effective and responsive local governance if our local government still prints things and puts them into file cabinets as a primary means of data management?
A group called Code for America is looking to change all this by bringing Internet technologies to your local government and the world. I spoke with Catherine Bracy, the International Program Manager for Code for America, about the organization's efforts and her efforts specifically. While Code for America has been working for a few years domestically, Catherine is responsible for helping internationalize the software and programs it has already developed.
The problem at hand
When someone says "for America" or "government," the conversation devolves quickly into an ideological discussion about the size of government and how much or how little it should do. Such debates typically focus on big federal government spending priorities like defense and health care.
By contrast, much of what local government does affects you every day -- things like sanitation, sewage, and sidewalks. There's little ideological debate about that stuff, but also little accessible information, in part due to the antiquated ways local government collects and publishes data and how it deals with functional issues.
As Catherine put it: "A lot of times what democracy looks like is: 'Did my trash get picked up on time?' or 'Can I figure out how to register for food stamps?' That's the kind of stuff Code for America works on ... bureaucracy and service delivery. And those are the really important, nonsexy things that we need to fix in order to restore confidence in our government and in democracy."
The big idea
According to Catherine, "If you look at what is really dangerous about the pace of innovation in government, over time, if it doesn't start speeding up, it is just going to get further and further away from what is happening in every other aspect of people's lives."
She continued: "People are used to interacting with technology in a way that is easy and well-designed and simple and elegant. When they hit an interaction with government and it is not that way, it breeds mistrust and cynicism and disconnection. By bringing the best of private-sector agile development and user-centered design, we can make government as easy to navigate and as intuitive as any customer app that people use in their private lives, and in so doing re-engage people and the public good."
What is Code for America doing to help accomplish this goal? The model is similar to Tech for America, except instead of sending bright, young teachers to underserved schools, Code for America recruits talented developers, designers, and product managers, then sets them to work developing Web applications for selected localities.
To channel the efforts of programmers who want to do good and gain experience in the bargain, Code for America offers three programs:
Fellowship. According to Bracy, "If people are interested in doing a year of service, the Fellowship program is a great opportunity. It's for technologists, engineers, developers, designers, UX people. We send teams of designers, developers, and urban planner program managers who have some experience in technology." The program runs for 11 months and connects technologists with people in government. For those looking to make a difference while making connections, this could be a real career opportunity as well as civic opportunity.
Brigades. The Brigade program is, according to Catherine, "a volunteer program that is active in a couple dozen cities. If it is not active where you live, you can start one. It's basically a group of techies who volunteer locally working on different projects in their city and usually promoting open data and reusing applications that are forked for their cities."
Accelerator. The Accelerator program is sort of like an incubator for civic startups. It gives worthy ideas a $25,000 grant, a place to live/work in San Francisco, marketing assistance, training, and the kinds of connections you need to make this sort of thing work.
Code for America has been in operation for just over three years. When Eric Knorr wrote about it back in 2010, not long after it had started, some comments were along the lines of "so where are the apps?" One could hardly ask that now. Code for America lists at least 28 different apps and programs on its website.
One commentator on Knorr's article also noted: "America obviously has lots of problems ... but I never expected lack of apps to be anywhere close to the top of the list." But Code for America offers more than that. The apps are part of a larger program of civic engagement. As Catherine put it, "Code for America is doing some of the best work in this space, civic technology, and doing it in the way that recognizes the value of public service and doesn't assume that technology alone will solve all of our problems."
The intent isn't just to throw an app at an issue and hope that solves it, but to launch modest programs like Adopt-a-Hydrant, which helps ensure fire hydrants stay unburied during snowstorms. It's about both organizing and engaging civic-minded members of the community -- code plus people.
Another example is BlightStatus, which helps people understand the disposition of blighted properties. In Durham, N.C., where I live, I frequently walk by great, abandoned old buildings and wonder who owns it and why something isn't being done. I've no idea how to even access that information outside of the somewhat useless and nowhere near comprehensive Web page my city provides...
Check out the rest of my article "Code for America: Think global, code local." over at InfoWorld.
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