Better government through code

Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka wants to empower developers to become civic coders

Code for AmericaIn his inaugural address in January of 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In 2010, the question has been updated: ask not what your country can code for you – ask what you can code for your country.

Toward that end, Jennifer Pahlka has extended the innovative volunteerism of Teach for America toward software developers with the new organization, Code for America. The non-profit allows the brightest technical minds of this generation to create applications that let government deliver better services to citizens. As Jolie Odell reported at Mashable, five American cities have been selected to receive help building web and/or mobile applications through Code for America’s fellows program. Boston, Boulder, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Seattle will soon have civic coders looking for ways to make government work better.

What follows is an edited and condensed interview with Pahlka conducted shortly before the selected cities were announced. (Note: included emphasis was added by the editor.)

What has bootstrapping Code for America been like?

It’s definitely been “a dive right” in experience. And I think the good news is it’s happening. When ideas hit reality, sometimes there’s sort of a combustion moment. We certainly have had bumps. But it seems as this comes out into the world and gets tested, especially with city staff, that there is a real need and there is an interest in making this happen. There is enough belief in the potential to really drive it forward. We’ve taken it basically from a concept to having “real clients.”

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010I finished up work on Web 2.0 in the beginning of December and aggressively launched our first call for applications from cities in the middle of January, which is a really short turnaround. I was happily surprised that we got 11 cities to apply on such short notice, given that we had of educate them about what it was. For some cities, it’s not a long education process. Some of them get it very quickly.

It’s not just selling them on Code for America. It’s selling them on the idea that there’s something to Web 2.0 in terms of driving transparency, efficiency and participation for cities. That this isn’t just an extra program. It’s really a way to transform government. I think we’ve done really well on that front. Out of those 11, we’ve got five cities that we’ll be working with. They’ve got good projects and we’re happy that cities take a long time to do things, in the sense that our schedule is built such that we’re not going to start building these projects until January. It’s going to take that long to really understand what the opportunity there is.

This needs to originate inside the cities because they’re the ones that know what will actually save money and make them more efficient and transparent. What we want to do then is take those ideas and bring in experts from the web industry.

How will Code for America and the selected cities collaborate?

To clarify, this isn’t being freely offered. We ask the cities to pay for the costs of their Code for America fellows. They each have to cover about $225,000. We don’t pay our fellows much, but we do have to pay them something so that they can survive. That’s been one of the obstacles. We had about 30 more cities that said that they would love to participate but couldn’t come up with the funds. I think that’s not surprising. In each of the five cities, there was someone who really believed that that $225,000 would save them an enormous amount of money in the long run, and they really wanted to do it.

This project was really birthed last July, when Andrew Greenhill, the Chief of Staff for the Mayor of Tucson, Arizona, was asking me for help bringing in a Web 2.0 team to build a web application that would save the city money. At the time, he was talking about what a dire circumstance Tucson was in and how cities around the country are really struggling. You get these enormous cuts in revenue and it’s not like a business; you don’t have the same flexibility that businesses have. So cities cut services. You can do that only so many times until you’re not providing the services that a city needs to provide.

As budgets are getting settled in cities across the U.S. right now, you’re actually starting to see the crap hit the fan, so to speak. There are two paths they can take: They can continue to try to shave here and there. Or they can say, “We have to take a fundamentally new approach” and adopt government as a platform. That includes the principles and values of the web, and outsourcing some functions to cities or using collective intelligence.

These are very new approaches. They’re very difficult for cities to get their heads around. I think the cities that applied reflect the ones that get that you can’t just keep shaving here and there; you’re going to have to take a new approach, even if it’s going to hurt and even if it’s going to cost a little bit. In the long run, it’s the only way they’re going to survive.”

What practical improvements will you bring to municipal government?

What we’re trying to do is show that you can save in other departments. One example that I like to use is that if you have a service request to your city, most of the time, you have to call it in. And most of the time, you have to figure out who to call. That’s a burden on citizens. You’re also often contacting a call center that has a pretty primitive way of tracking what you’re calling in on. There’s a bunch of money and time that can be saved in terms of those call centers. What you may not realize is that in most cities, after the call they will then generate a request to send an inspector out to verify whatever it is that’s broken. An inspector will actually have to go visit that pothole, take notes on it, take a picture of it and then put it in the queue. There’s a lot of money spent within cities from stuff like that. That is the perfect kind of thing that you could outsource to citizens. SeeClickFix provides a nice model for that. So does CitySourced.

Another example is emergency services. What costs a city the most money? Emergency response. It’s incredibly expensive. If you think of neighborhoods as patients, then you would want to do the same thing the health care industry is trying to do: keep your patient out of the emergency room. The way to do that is to give them education and preventative care.

One project that we’re interested in building is a neighborhood organizing platform that would replace the email lists that many people are on. In many cities, often within the radius of a couple of blocks in a neighborhood, there’s an email list of residents. What gets talked about are subjects like someone’s car was broken into. Trash pickup didn’t happen this week. Library hours are being cut back And those conversations right now are completely citizen-to-citizen. Some person might find a piece of information that may be relevant and share it. That’s very useful.

We envision a platform whereby the conversation continues to be citizen-to-citizen but the relevant data for a neighborhood is being provided to the citizens by the city. So you’d know the crime stats for exactly those blocks you live on, for instance, instead of guessing that there had been a crime spike in your neighborhood. There would be a trigger set up that if crime jumps by X percent, X neighborhood group gets a message that says, “This is what’s happening in your neighborhood according to our statistics. Would you like the police department to come do a neighborhood watch training? If so, click here to schedule.” That’s not only more efficient, it probably wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Or consider if there’s a development that’s been proposed for your neighborhood. How will you get information on it? How you will you respond to the city, in terms of your opinion on the project? In Oakland, where I live, they send out an enormous amount of mail for every development. You get actual physical mail sent to you if there’s a proposed development project in your neighborhood, which cannot be cheap. We’re starting to understand the value of urban data now but we really need to show how it can work. Just publishing municipal data is one thing that happened in apps contests like Apps For America, and it’s been hugely valuable. We’d like to get that data in the hands of citizens where they can use it to take control of the direction of their neighborhoods and reduce the number of complaints, reduce the number of emergency calls and save the city money in the long run.

Beyond reducing costs and automating some transactions, what other areas could Code for America fellows help cities with?

I think if you take any city that is using a 311 application, you’re looking at huge savings. That’s not available to a lot of cities right now; the costs are too high. So one area we want to do a lot of work is in 311. We’re looking at building some open source solutions there so that we can cobble together an overall solution that connects with the Open 311 initiatives that San Francisco and D.C. have been driving.

[Editor’s note: San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have announced the joint adoption of the Open 311 platform.]

We need to start to solve a marketing problem for cities. Think about it. Let’s say you build an iPhone app or an Android app that lets you take a picture of a broken streetlight and upload it to your city’s DPW. That’s great. Now you have to get it in the hands of citizens. If every single city is trying to promote their own application, you’ve got huge marketing challenges, especially in metropolitan areas. I live in Oakland, but I’m also frequently in Berkeley and San Francisco. I’m not going to download three different applications for three different cities. I need just one. If it just so happens that when I go to New York, it works there too, all the better. You really have to consider economies of scale and to tie the efforts together. To the extent that we, by tying cities together around common goals, can help that happen, I think we’ll solve another major problem.

How many people are on the Code for America staff? How many fellows do you have in the pipeline?

We haven’t really promoted the fellows program. That’s due to start in June and be active over the summer, culminating in the fall. We’re looking for partners right now and working with some great companies that are offering to help get the word out. We haven’t started a major push yet. My hope is that we get hundreds of applications. It’s a tough sell.

We’re promoting the idea of public service, but it does mean that you’re giving up a year of your life. We’re going to be empowering people who could have made a lot more money. Our value proposition is that the connections they’ll make and the impact they can have will move them forward, along with the feeling of doing good for the world.

We do need more staff in order to pull that off. I’ve got a lot of great volunteers, including ex-colleagues and city people who have wanted to help make this happen. Right now, it’s me and one other person. I’ve got some of my founding CTO’s time, but I’m looking to hire a full-time CTO and a city manager. It’s a matter of the funding coming together — which is in the works — combined with a very positive outlook.


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