Across the country, software geeks are building multi-platform applications to do all sorts of things. Among them, apps to encourage civic engagement and help cities run more efficiently.
Code for America, a non-profit out of San Francisco, is out front in this effort. The organization has fellows working in nine cities nationwide. They're focusing on ways to make government work better for everyone.
City Government At It’s Worst
You’d never know looking at these new wood-and-brick townhomes in the heart of Kansas City, Kan. that the block was once blighted homes and townhomes. The other thing you would never know is that it took John Harvey and his non-profit redevelopment group City Vision days, weeks, even months to begin to get this work done.
John Harvey says no commercial real estate company is ever going to jump through the same hoops as City Vision, who’s mission it is to clean up bad neighborhoods.
“Just to figure out the ownership and get control of the property you may have to go to the Register of Deeds, tax delinquent office, treasurer’s office…all just to get ahold of the property," says Harvey.
There are similar hassles at City Hall filing for a business license or a building permit. These are the kinds of inefficiencies Code for America wants to address.
Hacking Your City
Andrew Hyder attended a “hackathon” at the Kauffman Foundation earlier this year.
Hyder’s a tow-headed 31-year-old urban planner who’s created on-line mapping for bike paths in the Bay Area. He’s one of 28 highly selective Code for America fellows .
His twitter handle, @hackyourcity reflects the communal ethos around here that “hacking” now has a positive connotation. It can be done with or without permission, but it’s now done for the common good.
“You take a system and maybe break it apart, find what pieces you could build for cheaper and easier," says Hyder. "Then put it back together in this new form that can help everyone out. You’ve left it better than you found it."
Code For America Around The Country
That’s what Code for America fellows are trying to do.
They’re working on criminal justice systems in New York and Louisville. In San Francisco and San Mateo, Calif. they’ve been looking at health and human services.
In Kansas City, Kan. and Missouri, Hyder and two other fellows are developing an application that will spur economic development. Hyder says it’s been an interesting challenge.
“A lot of the people who work for the city see economic development as a new building or tax incentives, he says.
"But as soon as talk to an educator or neighborhood leader it becomes quality of life that draws people here, and there’s an amazing entrepreneurial scene here. So economic development is really broad.”
How To City - Code For America’s Working Prototype
Google Fiber and the potential of high-speed internet played a role in Code for America coming to the Kansas City area.
But Ariel Kennan, another Code for America fellow, explains the app as a broad –reaching “how to” manual for civic engagement. She recently unveiled the prototype for a group of city officials, start-up entrepreneurs, and community leaders. On a large power point slide she talked about How To City, and how it would work.
“There would be a variety of lessons. For example you could promote your business online, pay your taxes on line, even report graffiti in your neighborhood on line.”
But Gwedolyn Thomas has some concerns. She fields calls to the 3-1-1 helpline in the Kansas City, Kan. Mayor’s office. She’s not sure how many of those she encounters will be willing, or able, to stop using the telephone to report problems or ask questions.
“You know it may work for some of our younger adults in our community, but we get a lot of calls from our seniors," says Thomas.
They're not computer knowledgeable, she says, so they don’t have those tools.
Successes And Potential Problems
Code for America has had some enormous successes in places like Philadelphia, says Chris Kingsley with the National League of Cities. In Philadelphia, they found many people didn’t have access to internet, but most had cell phones. So they posted questions about city planning on billboards and busses and developed an app that enabled citizens to text their responses to city hall.
But Kingsley says the fellows are only in the area for one year. That, he says, may be just one of the potential pitfalls.
“These are going to be younger people used to using a different set of technologies, so there are some cultural barriers to talk across….that can be a very dynamic and fruitful relationship, or it can be a very frustrating one.”
Back at the “hackathon” you hear the word “iteration” a lot. That’s hackerese for changes.
Andrew Hyder says the Code for America fellows will continue tweaking the technology, making it better , more understandable, easier to use. But the technology, he says, isn’t the biggest challenge.
“Keeping people engaged using these types of technology and the right way to ask questions, and actually get valuable feedback….using it is the harder part. “
Code for America fellows have been asked to go back and talk to more small business owners and report back with a revised prototype. They’ll be reworking the app up until their fellowship is over in November.
But the organization extends it’s mission of civic engagement beyond when the fellows leave with a program called The Brigade.
The volunteer based Brigade will work closely with city staff on civic issues of their own choosing, continuing the work of Code for America long after the Fellows return home.