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Code for America: Developers Pledge to Connect Citizens, and Each Other, in 2011

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, November 17 2010

In 2011, a group of 20 technologists across the country will test a theory: Given coding talent and information-technology knowledge, big municipal governments can make their cities better without spending a whole lot of money.

This is the thesis behind Code for America, a non-profit built up over the course of this year to send technologists to cities the same way Teach for America trains and sends teachers to schools. In 2011, Code for America's leadership announced in a webinar yesterday, 20 "fellows" — earning modest pay for the year, plus travel expenses and health care — will work in four teams across the country on projects, formulated in partnership with the sponsor cities, that chiefly revolve around networking citizens with institutions and to each other.

The projects are:

Washington, D.C.: D.C. Chief Information Officer Bryan Sivak is putting the resources the district is getting from Code for America to work on Civic Commons, a project, already in its formative stages, to create a sort of open-source software catalog for municipalities across the country. The idea here — a favorite of New York techies at OpenPlans — is that cities can save money on development by using the same open-source software, like Open311, at the core of their IT infrastructure.

In this model, as a pure hypothetical, say San Francisco wants an extension for Open311, an open-source framework to manage a non-emergency 311 call system, that can send text messages to notify someone who has logged an issue with 311 when that issue requires follow-up or has been resolved. If San Francisco pays for the software development and then gives the open-source code to a central repository like Civic Commons, another city using Open311 can use that extension instead of building a new one from scratch. Then, using the money that city would have spent on the core SMS extension, it could instead extend the system even further to support, oh, who knows, FourSquare integration. (Nick Judd is at Awful Diner with four others. TIP: There's rats in the kitchen.)

Boston: In Boston, Teach for America technical director Dan Melten explained, Code for America will be linking student data to a universal student ID card that is already in the pilot phase in Boston.

"In the city of Boston we're spending on things like after-school programs ... but they can't really see their impact on grades because the data isn't shareable in a way that's permeable," Melten said.

This program, Melten said during the webinar, could put a privacy filter on top of the student data to filter out personally identifiable information, then serve the data up for developers through an API.

By tying multiple databases together in this way, it could also, he said, accomplish internal tasks like allowing a parent to only fill out one health form for a student rather than separate ones to join a soccer league, enroll in school and in an after-school program.

Philadelphia and Seattle: Developers will work on social networking and other tools to better catalog the online and offline resources available for civic leaders — as well as civic leaders themselves. The idea in both cities, broadly defined, is to better empower people to get engaged in civic life. Technically Philly, Civsource Online and, in Seattle, TechFlash, have more on those projects.

The teams of fellows will get training and orientation at Code for America's headquarters in San Francisco in January, get their feet wet in their host cities in February, and then code from March through August. The projects are slated for launch in September.

Each of the 20 fellows, chosen from over 360 applicants, will be making $35,000 for the year, plus health care and travel expenses, Code for America Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka told me in a follow-up email. (They're also expected to network in each city, with Code for America's advisory board, and with each other — which probably doesn't hurt either.) The four major cities involved, Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle, will be paying $225,000 to participate in the program this year, and 2012 cities will each pay $250,000, she wrote in the same email. That certainly ain't bad as far as spending by a big city for an IT project, but, as several people in the CfA webinar yesterday pointed out, that kind of spending is prohibitive for smaller cities and towns — a crucial target population for the theory that technology can make municipal government smaller, more efficient, and more participatory for citizens.

That said, the output from CfA will be open source — so smaller municipalities could conceivably adopt these projects, if they make it to release, for far less money.

Code for America is led by Pahlka, a veteran of the video game and video-game-centric-media industries, is financially backed by institutions like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and organized with the help of O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly. The non-profit is looking for cities and fellows for 2012, as well as volunteers to contribute to each of the four 2011 Code for America projects.