Last week I had the privilege of hearing Jennifer Pahlka, founder, executive director and board chair of Code for America, speak at the SXSW Interactive in Austin. While there were plenty of celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Jeffrey Tambor, Anthony Bourdain, Al Gore and George Clinton (of P-Funk fame) around to keep things entertaining, it was Jennifer’s talk that left me truly inspired.
Most of us have heard of Teach for America, a phenomenal program that brings the nation’s best and brightest teachers to low income communities throughout the US. But, what if we aren’t a teacher? How can technology enthusiasts use our talents to improve the civic programs delivered at the local level? Enter Code for America!
As many of you know from direct experience, government procurement processes are often long and costly. Although there are solid reasons for these procedures, the downside is that some projects never get started because it would cost more to evaluate the solution then it would to get something built. Jennifer’s vision with Code for America was to use the talents of programmers, project managers, designers and researchers to develop quick solutions for seemingly simple problems.
“Working with city managers, we help to identify projects that can benefit from web-based solutions. Code for America recruits both the development teams and the participating cities through competitive application processes. Once identified and funded, each city project is connected with a web development team that can further scope the project, develop an action plan, and deliver an appropriate solution over an 11-month development cycle. Throughout the development cycle, CfA mentors, trains, and coordinates the teams and facilitates their relationships with their city management clients.” (http://codeforamerica.org/what-we-do/)
In their first year, Code for America produced 21 apps for three different cities. For example, when it snows in Boston, fire hydrants get buried causing a clear danger in emergencies. Clearing thousands of hydrants across Boston would be a very costly process, so the CfA team created an Adopt-a-Hydrant app. Check out this screenshot below.
The web app allows people to pick a hydrant (which they can name) and accept responsibility for shoveling it out of the snow. A government official said this app would have taken them 2 years and cost approximately $2M to build due to all of their red tape. CfA built it in 2 ½ months with 1.5 FTEs.
And, what’s so cool is cities like Chicago and Honolulu are adapting the Adopt-a-Hydrant app for their own purposes. Okay, true, Honolulu doesn’t get snow, but apparently, selfish trolls steal the batteries out of tsunami sirens. The app has been modified to let people adopt a siren and agree to regularly check the batteries to ensure they will be ready should there ever be a tsunami warning needed.
Jennifer insightfully said, “Government is what we do together.” Their work helps everyday citizens take part in our everyday civic duties through innovative web solutions. Even if you don’t have a year to spare as a fellow in the program there are ways we can all help. The CfA website offers several ways for us to all get involved: http://codeforamerica.org/get-involved-2/. One way is for us to ask our own cities to apply to the program to receive the benefits of these apps. Want to do even more? Join the Code for America Brigade and work with an army of geeks to contribute your talents to local projects.