Oct 09, 2012

Design for Everybody, by Everybody: The Code for America Effect

If you were on Twitter on Monday last week, you may have seen the hashtag #cfasummit trending and wondered what it was all about:

The tweets carrying this hashtag were broadcast from San Francisco’s Mission Bay conference center by attendees at a summit for Code for America, a fellowship program for technologists dedicated to building innovative web and mobile apps to make cities better.

Caption: Jennifer Pahlka, CfA Founder and Executive DirectorCaption: Jennifer Pahlka, CfA Founder and Executive Director

Jennifer Pahlka, CfA Founder and Executive Director

Last week's second annual Code for America Summit was proof that civic hacking—building disruptive apps and digital services to improve government—has taken off. Mayors of two major metropolitan cities spoke on the first day: San Francisco Mayor, Ed Lee, and Philadelphia Mayor, Michael Nutter. MC Hammer, of all people, presented with angel investor Ron Conway on day two. Hammer was inspired to join CfA after backing a viral video campaign for Ed Lee called "Ed Lee is 2 LEGIT 2 QUIT." The United States’ current Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park, also spoke on the second day. All in all, there were more than 40 branches and levels of government represented in the audience, as well as some people from the other side of the Atlantic on behalf of Code for Europe.

Good neighbors
Hot Studio has partnered with CfA—headquartered just a few blocks away from us in San Francisco—since 2011, mentoring teams of fellows as they collaborated with cities to design and build new innovations. This summer, CfA fellows came to Hot and spoke about progress made in year two—growing pains, lessons learned, and new projects—at Triple Bottom Lunch, Hot Studio's monthly brown bag speaker series focused on social innovation.

Before I started working at Hot as a content strategist, I was one of the 2011 fellows—the inaugural class—and I can’t help but feel proud and impressed about how much the organization has grown in such a short time:

  • In its first year, there were 19 fellows. In 2012, this number grew to 26. In 2013, there will be 29.
  • In its first year, CfA worked with three cities. This year there are eight. Next year there will be 10 government partners that will include not only cities, but also counties (San Francisco and Oakland included!).
  • The fellowship now supports three other large-scale efforts: The Code for America Accelerator that incubates and kickstarts civic startups; The CfA Brigade that builds community support around the deployment and reuse of technologies built at Code for America in any city; and The Code for America Peer Network that brings government innovators together to share their stories and resources.

Design for everybody
I see a lot of parallels in the way Hot and Code for America use design and technology to solve problems. But what is particular to the work Code for America does, I think, is that for every project, there is no one market segment that government serves. Government needs to serve everyone, and serve everyone equally.

At the CfA summit, Anthony Townsend, the research director at the Institute for the Future, shared the following quote from Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961):

"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

But designing cities by citizen committee is a tough thing to do because cities and citizens can't hit the pause button on life and work to radically transform systems. People and cities are in constant motion: the trains must be on time, the water needs to keep running, roads need to stay safe and open.

The world has changed since Jane Jacobs put a pen to paper in the 1960s. Citizen-government collaboration is made more feasible and easier because of the web and the proliferation of open source technologies and platforms like GitHub that allow citizens, designers, and developers to work together and in the open. Collaboration, above all else, is what Code for America represents and what the Summit celebrated. By including more people in the process—not only in research, but creation—organizations like Code for America, I think, have a chance to fulfill Jacob's promise: government technology for everybody, created by everybody.

2012 projects
The following are a few of the many Code for America projects that were highlighted at the Summit last week. They were built by 2012 fellows for their host cities and are intended to be shared and reused by other cities in the future:


In New Orleans, countless organizations are working around the clock to improve local communities and reduce blight throughout the city. However, each of these organizations collect and manage data about blighted properties in entirely different ways, which results in duplicated efforts, inconsistent information, and precious energy wasted. Partnering with the city and the Redevelopment Authority, the fellows created BlightStatus to make it simple for residents to find out what’s going on with blighted properties in their community—no long waits on the telephone or visits to City Hall required.


Video presentation from the 2012 Code for America Summit

From the ground up, Honolulu Answers was designed to be people-centric. Though the existing Honolulu.gov website has a wealth of great information, citizens found it difficult to navigate and challenging to find the specific information they were looking for. In live user testing with residents, CfA fellows found that people visiting Honolulu.gov weren’t there to browse; they were in search of an answer to a specific question. To write approachable, easy-to-understand answers, Code for America and the City of Honolulu hosted a “civic write-a-thon” with 55 Honolulu community members.


Video presentation from the 2012 Code for America Summit

Detroiters facing cold winters, dangerous street corners, and broken street lights can use the simple CfA-built TextMyBus tool to use text messages to get real-time bus information. The CfA team first worked hand-in-hand with the Mayor’s Office and DDOT to publish real-time transit data. Fellows designed the TextMyBus text messaging service as a demonstration app. The data is now available to app developers. DDOT riders simply text their street address, or closest intersection, to 50464 and receive a list of routes that service nearby bus stops. Riders then select their preferred route to find live arrival-time predictions.


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