This week, about 800 people gathered in San Francisco for the 4th annual Code for America summit. The non-profit “embeds” coders, designers and other techies into governments around the country to help aging bureaucracies serve citizens better. Imagine if you could contest a parking ticket or check on a court date - as easily as you can buy a pair of shoes on your smart phone.
Over coffee and cake, bleary-eyed but bushy tailed attendees evaluate the list of possible breakout sessions. There’s “Open Data on Your Budget;” and “Using Maps for Civic Dialogue” and “Geo-Centric Responsive Mobile Development.” For those who speak the language, this is scintillating stuff. Seriously!
Molly McLeod of Oakland is a 2014 Code for America Fellow, which means she got $50-thousand dollars and expenses paid for a year to help a city rethink the way it uses its data. “I’m a designer and an artist,” McLeod says. “So I love creating things and I love making things simple and beautiful and easy to use.”
McLeod went to Long Beach to help it identify repeat callers to 911 who probably need some kind of intervention to keep them from careening from one crisis to the next. But like many fellows, McLeod has several projects bubbling along at any given time. She also helped develop a program in San Francisco that allows you to check your food stamp balance by text message. “Which, you know, sounds like something that should already exist, but it doesn't.”
Especially when, according to Pew, 91 percent of the adult population in the U.S. now owns some kind of cell phone. For people who work with 21st century tech, it’s an easy leap – after a little bit of hard work – to take government data and repackage it so it’s accessible. No Excel spreadsheets. No blurry PDFs. No databases that give you the right answer only if you ask the right question.
These are the kinds of things that infuriate citizens, but they also demoralize some of the people working inside public agencies. 2012 Fellow Eddie Tejeda says many who work in government are just waiting for the chance to embrace a better way.
“Part of it has to do with being able to demonstrate results early,” he says.
In New Orleans, Tejeda helped create BlightStatus, a website that makes it easy to track blighted properties: everything from inspections, to public hearings, to sales, to demolitions. Like many of the people at this summit, Tejeda shares a concept familiar to story tellers. “Show, don’t tell.” Demonstrate what’s possible, usually at reduced cost, and a lot of institutional resistance melts away.
“They get committed to an idea,” Tejeda explains.” “They become emotionally and intellectually invested to an idea, you can start thinking about long term.”
Silicon Valley-style, Tejeda and his colleagues took the interface they created for New Orleans and launched a company called CivicInsight that maintains BlightStatus, and does similar work for other governments. He’s not alone. Companies big and small are at the summit to hawk products and schmooze … while also grooving on the heady atmosphere of idealistic, civic volunteerism.
Jennifer Pahlka founded Code for America four years ago. There are all sorts of programs that set up mid-career professionals share their skills for a good cause. Pahlka thought … why not help governments work better? Or as one urban designer from Washington DC tweeted this week, "I'm not in the business of solving a tech problem. I'm in the business of changing gov't."
The organization now runs a variety of programs operating in close to 130 cities. In her keynote speech, Pahlka said Code for America wants to raise the bar for itself and government in the coming five years, by tracking what governments are making their data available to the public as a matter of policy, along with the Sunlight Foundation. “So many cities are opening their data and not only for transparency or accountability, but because they’re seeing those generative effects when people can actually use that data and make it available and relevant and meaningful to citizens.”
Pahlka spent last year serving as President Barack Obama’s deputy chief technology officer for government innovation.
“There’s a lot of reasons why government was an institution built to be hard to change,” Pahlka says. “That makes sense in a lot of ways, but it’s not serving us very well right now. And we strongly believe, the way this country was founded, it’s not just about government doing a better job. We have to be a part of it.”
Pahlka brings up the example of Healthcare.gov, the web site set up for the Affordable Care Act, that famously failed to function properly when it opened to the public last year. Pahlka says it was a dramatic example of how the old approach to government tech is not just expensive. It doesn’t work well.