Techies go to City Hall as projects are announced in four cities

During a webinar yesterday, Code for America officials discussed timelines and deliverables for projects that will help local governments do more with less. An educational services platform, two civic engagement projects and a catalog devoted to institutionalizing open source software in city government round out the inaugural set of projects being developed by the 2011 class.

Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and the District of Columbia will soon be incorporating techies, coders, developers, writers and other top Web talent for year-long fellowships. Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka said the non-profit was created to connect top talent from the web industry with government, drawing from Teach for America and the Peace Corps models.

“We are working with city government for a number of reasons,” she said. “First they are the part of government where citizens interact, were it touches their lives in the most concrete and visible ways. Second, cities are really in crisis.”

Ms. Pahlka said cities were not just in financial crisis, but also suffering from a demographic crisis, where many retiring city workers are not being replaced with younger talents.

“We want to help government adopt a platform-style of thinking in how they do development,” added Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media Inc. and board member for CfA, also on the webinar. Mr. O’Reilly said that some cities are just now realizing the opportunities that global and social technologies can have on their jurisdictions.

One of those cities starting to think about government as a platform is Boston, Massachusetts. Last month, Boston launched a pilot program to give public-school students a single ID card that will also get them on the T and into community centers and let them take books out of the library.

CfA Fellows on the Boston team are tasked with building an educational services platform for developers to build applications that promote education based on the data produced from these cards. Dan Melton, Technical Director of CfA, said the city’s education system lacks a complete view of student performance and activities data.

“Our Fellows will build a system around that data and develop an API…with privacy constraints.”

Philadelphia and Seattle will both undertake civic engagement projects with CfA fellows over the next eleven months. Mr. Melton said that officials in both these cities saw opportunities for technology to help better communicate with and foster civic engagement. One problem a lot of cities have (if they’re lucky) is that the community contacts they have are just as siloed as the agencies. The planning board only knows a certain number of civic leaders; the health department knows another; and the police only know another.

In an e-mail to Seattle’s Techflash blog, city CIO Bill Schrier said, “The City is interested in an application which will help mobilize neighborhoods and communities to civic action. Ideally, the application would identify civic groups, non-profit organizations, social service and community organizations active in each neighborhood.”

Mr. Melton said he envisioned a “network of civic leaders who are linked together and linked to government.”

Finally, the District of Columbia will be spearheading Civic Commons – a project that will allow governments to share resources and software that nearly all cities use. “Civic Commons will institutionalize collaboration between governments that have technology and those that need it,” said Abdi Nemani, Director of Strategy and Communications at CfA. A board of advisors will identify, document and relicense technology currently used by the public sector, while curating new technologies as they are developed.

Additionally, Code for America announced the beginning of its 2012 application process for interested cities. They are looking for cities who are interested in leveraging technology to:

  • Harness the power of people by connecting and empowering citizens to solve problems
  • Develop a new business gateway through quick and easy online permitting to stimulate local economy and economic development
  • Workflow transparency by providing more insight into underlying infrastructure projects to the public

For information on the application process and this year’s projects, click here.

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