Code for America: Think global, code local

Code for America invites developers to innovate in the public interest

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?

Your code is solid but your career is stagnating? Get Andrew's 10 tips for becoming the developer everyone wants. Want more Java enterprise news? Get JavaWorld's Enterprise Java newsletter delivered to your inbox.

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.

You can find out more about Catherine Bracy specifically in my personal blog or follow her on Twitter at @cbracy -- or Code For America generally at @codeforamerica.

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 Teach 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.

The apps

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.

Effectiveness

A few years ago, when I came into some money, I decided to make better choices about where I put my charitable contributions. I stopped doing the grocery checkout "would you like to donate to?" impulse contribution and started studying what makes organizations effective.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has identified that nonprofits tracking metrics and effectiveness, much like businesses, function more effectively. (Full disclosure: My company does back-end services and support for at least one program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.) I discovered this simple idea goes back a long while and was pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation in the early part of the last century.

While Code for America is still fairly new, I asked Catherine how the group goes about tracking its success. In fact, Code for America actively tracks its metrics, which come down to a few areas:

  • Continuity. Did the program continue beyond the year of sponsored fellowship? According to Code for America's website, the goal is "not just building tools that are relevant for a few months while the fellowship is happening and then die, but technology that can be repurposed and maintained and easily redeployed" in other cities.
  • Policy change. Did engagement with Code for America result in a specific policy or rule change? The organization hopes "some open data policy or open gov policy that gets created based on our relationship."
  • Open source. Another metric is how many times the tools that are developed have been reused. Some of those raw numbers are available via GitHub and other tools commonly used in open source projects.
  • Engagement. Code for America tracks the "engagement of the community, brigade members and number of brigades across the country." In part, this is measured via the number of people who participate in the organization's events, such as Code Across America, which happens every February. There are also hackathons.

America and the world

Catherine's job is to bring Code for America programs to other parts of the world. Pilot partners will be announced in May. According to Catherine, "The goal for the next year is to really build a network, while we're partnering with global organizations, who share our values and want to implement a version of the Code for America model where they live. It is not really about sending fellows in Peace Corps style, but building a network of like-minded civic technologists so that we are creating a global ecosystem of sustainable civic tools and technological standards."

The kind of challenges faced by most internationalization projects are compounded by the fact that "Code for America is built on a lot of assumptions about the way that the American system of government works, so it is not going to translate necessarily one-for-one to every place we want to work." Catherine notes the approach involves "really thinking about what the core values are that are universal and how we can protect those and advance those while providing the freedom to create a local framework that is going to work in that country's context."

You can, too

Want to participate? Well, as a nonprofit, Code for America accepts donations. But whether you are a coder or not, you can get involved in other ways. "It is really just citizens who care about making their cities and their local government more efficient and more engaged with the people who live there," says Catherine. "We need all hands on deck for that kind of work."

Talented, civic-minded people can help, whether applying for an Accelerator grant for their big ideas or starting a brigade to fork an app or two for their city.

Plus, key innovators already exist in local government. Catherine says their participation is "a crucial part of the equation. They are already working in city government, and they are not getting the attention and respect they deserve. We're really trying to empower them and help them do work that they need and want to do. We have had really great partners in all of our cities."

This article, "Code for America: Think global, code local," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in application development and read more of Andrew Oliver's Strategic Developer blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

This story, "Code for America: Think global, code local" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.