Code for America injecting digital mojo into city government
OK, WHICH KIND OF CODE ARE WE TALKING about here? I’m reasonably certain it’s not about code breakers, code talkers or secret decoder rings.
In 2014, Chattanooga is one of ten cities nationwide to receive Code For America Fellows, young natives of the digital realm who will put their skills to work for the city for a year.
But is Code For America more about “city codes”—those dry documents that make it possible to enforce building standards and fire safety—or computer code, the endless lines of instructions that make computers and mobile devices more functional than decorative?
Is the point of this digital “year of service” making the mechanism of government a little more efficient, or is it about finding some kind of civic killer app, bringing some of the digital mojo of the business startup world into city government?
The answer is somewhere between “all of the above” and “wait and see.” I sat down with two of Chattanooga’s three Code For America Fellows at the end of February. For both, it seems Code For America merges two kinds of geekery: civic and technological.
At 25, Jason Denizac has a degree in public policy and six years working as a professional web developer under his belt. Jeremia Kimelman, who turned 26 the day after our interview, was bitten by the community advocacy bug in college and worked in startups after graduating. The third team member, user experience designer Giselle Sperber, had already headed back to San Francisco, and these two were flying out the next day.
Kimelman is excited about the city as a manageable intersection of politics and policy.
“Politics matters for sure, but policy is directly impacting people’s lives in the way they interact with housing codes or garbage or restaurants or their lives,” he says. “Code For America is the natural intersection of community organizing at the city level and enhancing citizen involvement in policymaking.”
“I think there’s a really natural bridge in civic technology,” says Denizac. “In software a lot of times you’ll think in terms of systems and how things fit together. It might be a web server talking to a database. In government you end up with the same thing. There’s a lot of different pieces and moving parts and people and the way that all fits together.”
The team spent February in Chattanooga talking with people inside and outside city government about the city’s needs and beginning to synthesize the ideas that emerged from these conversations. Next, all 30 Fellows will regroup at Code For America headquarters in San Francisco to compare notes. The Chattanooga team might call on other Fellows for specific expertise but will be the primary developers for their project, which they will develop over the next few months and premiere at Code For America’s national conference in October.
The Chattanooga team already has some directions in mind and is working to define the project in collaboration with the community. They plan to return to Chattanooga soon, tentatively in April, to test their ideas in a development process that is essentially the same as in commercial software development.
“We will be doing an iterative, hypothesis-driven, user-centric development process,” says Kimelman. “We will come up with a hypothesis, develop a prototype—in theory the cheapest prototype we can to validate—test it out and then iterate on that frame.”
“It could be a website, back-end systems more to help people providing front-line services, phone systems or text messaging-based systems,” says Denizac. “If you look at the portfolio of past Code For America projects, there are examples of all those.”
Community engagement and transparency are big priorites As their project is developed, the code for it will be open source and will be posted, even in draft form, on a sharing site called github. The team will also post updates on their blog and on Twitter.
Code For America’s founder, Jennifer Pahlka—currently serving as U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—describes the organization’s brand of engagement as bureaucratic activism.
Rather than getting politically active or protesting, Denizac says this means “making the bureaucracy and actual facilities of government an attractive place to work in and try to create change and make things work better.”
The organization’s mission, according to Kimelman, is to have “better cities built by and for the people who consume services and live in the geography of that area.” The method is to apply the tools and techniques of software development to the issues of the city.
“If you think about it, legislation is code,” adds Kimelman. “It just runs on the infrastructure of city hall instead of on a computer.”