Atlantic Cities

Techies Embed in City Hall

Techies Embed in City Hall
Courtesy Code for America

The increasingly wired world has inevitably met the notoriously slow-moving gears of city government. City websites, apps and online tools are becoming an integral part of local government. Or at least they’re starting to. While some cities like San Francisco and New York have been leaders in developing a software side of the city, others simply don’t have the time or resources to upgrade to Government 2.0. A program entering its second year is on a mission to help those cities get there, and so far it has produced some promising results.

Code for America connects selected fellows with cities that need their services. It’s based on the Teach for America model, where recent graduates are sent to school districts with few resources. Like underperforming schools, there are plenty of cities that can use all the help they can get.

In its first year, the program has built a variety of applications and tools for cities, including a website that helps Boston parents find schools for their kids, an app that calculates the solar potential of rooftops, and tools that help residents interact with city 311 systems for non-emergency services.

Code for America just announced the next group of focus cities that will receive teams of fellows. For 2012, the organization has upped its load to eight cities. From a pool of more than 20 applicants, the selected cities are Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, New Orleans, Santa Cruz, and Macon, Georgia. Philadelphia will also spend a second year in the program.

Unlike the rest of the cities in the program, Macon represents a new approach for the program, mainly because the city of 91,000 has different needs than a Philadelphia or Boston.

“Comparatively, we’re teeny tiny,” says Amanda Deaton, the project lead for the city of Macon.

And that may be why a program like this is needed there so much. Deaton says her city lacks the resources to build some of the more basic websites and tools that could help improve the way the city works for its citizens. She says a big issue in Macon in citizen engagement.

“There are some people in the community that don’t have any interaction with their government,” says Deaton. “An engaged public is a public that takes ownership of their community and makes their community a better place.”

She’s hoping the way the public interacts with the city – and how the city responds to the needs of citizens – will be improved by the program. She says the current system lets both sides down.

“Yes, you can call customer service, but there’s no real way to follow up to make sure something gets done. If it does, hooray, if it doesn’t it doesn’t,” Deaton says. “We need better ways for the community to communicate with us, and also to hold us accountable.”

The work will begin when teams of three fellows arrive in host cities in February. But before they arrive, they’ll spend their first month preparing to work in the unique and sometimes challenging field of local government. Code for America aims to help the programmers and developers and marketers involved understand the culture of city government, giving them a crash course on how to navigate the city, according to Alissa Black, government relations director. She says a big part of the training is simply encouraging the fellows to be observant of how their cities work and to listen to their needs.

“What we want to do is base our work on user feedback,” Black says. “That means going into the cities, talking with officials, meeting with different departments and gathering as much information as the fellows can about what’s going on.”

But, she says after eight years of experience working in local government, it can be difficult to get officials to open up about the problems they face.

“Cities have a really hard time one, admitting that they need help, and two, articulating that problem to an audience,” says Black.

But with 2011’s cities, Black and the Code for America fellows have been able to develop communication channels with their host cities, and to help break down some of the silos that tend to keep co-dependent parts of local governments apart.

While the goal for each host city is to improve local problems, Code for America is also looking beyond borders. They specifically look for cities with what Black calls repeatable problems.

“When you address one city's problem, you can imagine you’re solving another city’s problem, too,” says Black.

And that’s already occurring. Black points to one project developed for Boston that gets locals to “adopt” fire hydrants to make sure they are visible to firefighters after heavy snows. She says officials in Honolulu have adopted a similar program to get locals to look out for and maintain tsunami sirens.

“The functionality can cross jurisdictions,” says Black. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

Cities pay to be involved in the program, though the fees are apparently much less than those charged by commercial vendors. Some are able to participate through foundation support, like Macon, whose roughly $300,000 in program fees are handled by the Knight Foundation.

For Deaton, the potential impact of the program on the city is exciting. She says the potential of Code for America can create a sea-change in Macon, where public engagement in local government is low. Engagement, she says, but also fulfillment.

She has a lot of ideas about how the incoming fellows will be able to help and change the city, but she also wants to defer to their judgment and technological expertise.

“We don’t want to tell them what to work on,” Deaton says. “We’re going to let them come here, let them see what we have and let them tell us where they think they can make the biggest impact.”

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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