Designing the Future: Code for America Makes an Impact

April 24, 2014 11:00 am PDT | Open Data

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Open Innovation magazine.

Before 2011, parents in Boston, MA struggled to figure out which schools their children were eligible to attend. The confusing process, involving a 28-page manual and a lottery system, was a source of contention and, at times, violent conflict among parents across the city. A turning point came when Code for America (CfA), a non-profit organization dedicated to using data and technology to improve lives, turned their team on the problem.

Lauren Reid, Senior Public Affairs Manager at CfA, explains how they built a solution. “The CfA fellows in Boston developed an app where parents could enter a few simple data points, such as address and age of child, and find out quickly which schools were available as options for their child,” Reid says. The app was hugely successful. “The City of Boston told us that this app, developed in just three short months, would have taken the city more than two years and two million dollars to create — had it gone through the standard procurement process. Together with the City, we’re resolving a decades-old problem using modern technology and open data, and changing the conversation between parents and the schools system from one of contention to one that is positive and productive.”

Code for America was founded in 2009 by Jennifer Pahlka, the current Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the United States. The organization seeks to find out what can happen when smart, savvy researchers, developers, and designers are deployed to cities across the nation to help local governments unlock their data to create solutions and deliver services to their citizens.

The Formula

The Code for America formula is simple. Developers and designers commit a year of their careers to helping a city government in need of problem solving. In exchange for a modest stipend, these participants, called fellows, live in their assigned cities, and use their skills to help move government forward to meet the needs of 21st century citizens.

CfA Programs

Code for America has developed four programs to help further their mission.

  • The Fellowship: Code for America’s flagship program, in which developers and designers are matched with local governments to transform data into usable forms for public improvement.
  • The Brigade: Civic-minded volunteers come together to form brigades, bringing grassroots efforts to data use and transparency.
  • The Accelerator: Provides financial and logistical support to civic tech startups, from a $25K grant to mentorship and networking opportunities.
  • The Peer Network: A learning network for government innovators who want to work with other local governments to harness the power of open data in their cities.

Fellows in Action

Matthew Hampel, 2012 CfA Fellow (Detroit), spoke to Socrata about his experience as a fellow. One of his projects for the city of Detroit was to create a web and mobile app that would update commuters about bus schedules. Hampel told us about the app, called TextMyBus.

“Originally, bus data was tracked manually through an ancient interface and it wasn’t available to public,” Hampel explained. “So the city provided us with access to their servers and we exposed the data. With that, we built a text messaging app that helps people figure out when their buses are arriving.” TextMyBus has proven quite popular. As of December 2013, the app has served over 1.1 million users.

CfA fellows have contributed 62 apps across America so far, from helping citizens navigate the public school system to receiving text alerts when services, like food stamps, are about to expire.

Brigades in Action

Some of Code for America’s most passionate, committed volunteers live in Raleigh, NC. Jason Hibbets and Chad Foley are two of the Raleigh brigade’s four co-captains. Each man volunteers hours of time each month, outside of their day jobs, to the brigade.

“Being part of the Raleigh brigade allows us to have an impact on local government and our community,” says Hibbets. He believes that government transparency in data is paramount to innovation. “Open data is the foundation of civic entrepreneurship,” Hibbets explains. “Open data belongs to the people. Put data in the right hands and apps that can improve the daily life of citizens can be created.”

Foley agrees. “Your civic technical ecosystem should overlap with entrepreneurship. As part of that ecosystem, our brigade influences the civic IT department by promoting open data. We are on the cutting edge of Gov 2.0 and civic hacking and geeking,” Foley says.

You can expect to see more brigades pop up in 2014, allowing for crossover and partnership. As Foley explains, “Your city boundaries shouldn’t limit innovation.” If, for example, you have an app that catalogues the greenways in your city, it should continue beyond city limits, says Foley.

A Look Forward 

In 2014, Code for America plans to add 31 new fellows to the fellowship program.

For people like Matt Hampel, who is passionate about harnessing open data for civic improvement, Code for America has been a vehicle for positive change. “Data helps you design the future you want to see,” Hampel explains. “Data gives you the power to make informed decisions, and informed decisions are better decisions.”

Code for America by Numbers

  • 2011: 19 fellows deployed to Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle
  • 2012: 26 fellows sent to eight cities: Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Macon, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Santa Cruz
  • 2013: 27 fellows embedded within nine communities: Kansas City, Kan. + Kansas City, Mo.; Las Vegas; Louisville, Ken.; New York; Oakland, Calif.; San Francisco; San Mateo County, Calif.; South Bend, Ind.; Summit County, Ohio
  • 2014: 31 fellows will join the Code for America program. Cities to be announced.
  • 62: Apps created by CfA fellows over the years

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