Code For America's Vision for Peer-to-Peer City Governance

Times are tough for American cities. Facing budget shortfalls, municipalities are slashing public programs, reducing staff, and in some cases, barely staying solvent. Ultimately, it’s the city’s residents who feel the pain, particularly ones in low-income communities who rely on public services. As city officials increasingly eye the bottom line, software upgrades and open government initiatives are shuttered or indefinitely delayed out of necessity, even though such efforts could increase efficiency and directly benefit the citizenry. It’s a dire state of affairs, one which Code for America aims to address.

Code for America was founded in 2009 by Jennifer Pahlka, who helped organize the first Gov 2.0 Summit in collaboration with TechWeb and Tim O’Reilly. Though she was initially focused on the federal government, a conversation with Andrew Greenhill of the City of Tucson about the difficulties facing cities prompted her to refocus her attention on municipalities. This inspired Code for America, a non-profit that works with city governments and residents to identify pressing needs that can be addressed through web applications.

“People don’t realize what a huge financial crisis cities are in, and that they need to come up with new ways to get by in the next decade,” says Pahlka. Beyond the immediate effects this can have on the lives of residents, dissatisfaction with city governance can sour them on the entire civic process. “It ties back to citizens’ expectations and interactions with government,” she says. “On a day to day level, citizens are interacting with their cities.”

Serving citizens and improving civic engagement are core goals for Code for America. “Early on, we settled on three major things we were trying to do: openness and transparency, engagement, and efficiency,” she says. “There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained in the government, but we’re most interested in opportunities where we are opening it up to the citizens and doing all three.” Perhaps most crucially, the organization requires that all web applications their Fellows develop for pilot cities can be deployed by other cash-strapped municipalities.

Code for America chooses a limited number of cities from a set of applicants each year to target its efforts. Once chosen, the non-profit dispatches teams of Code for America Fellows—volunteer software engineers, designers, community organizers and more who pledge a year to the program—to work with city managers and citizens to identify web-based solutions to the cities’ needs.

“We’re looking for cities where there’s enough political will and broad support for trying different things,” Pahlka says. “It’s not hard to find a city where there’s one or two people interested in a new approach, but it’s harder to find cities where that appetite for change is more broad-based.”

In 2012, Code for America is focusing on eight cities—Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Macon, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Santa Cruz—expanded from three in 2011, the first year of the program. I spoke with members of the teams in Chicago, Detroit, and Austin, to find out how Code for America turns its lofty goals into effective solutions to city governance and civic engagement issues.

Chicago: The City of Big Platforms

Since Rahm Emanuel succeeded Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2011, the City of Chicago has aggressively pursued Gov 2.0 initiatives. Under the supervision of its Chief Technology Officer John Tolva, Chicago is updating its 311 system, a phone-based system for citizens to request non-emergency city services. Code for America’s Chicago team is working with Tolva to deploy Open311, an open data platform that would make the service more accessible to residents and allow the city to share data with other cities that have adopted the standard.

“Inside the city there are a lot of different applications accessing data in different ways,” says Code for America Fellow Ben Sheldon, a web developer and community organizer. “We’re trying to build out Chicago’s data platform and make it more open and accessible inside and outside the government.”

Open311 is only the beginning. The team have been meeting with city aldermen to identify how an open data platform can help them better serve the communities they represent. They’re also reaching out to local entrepreneurs to build a sustainable ecosystem for such platforms. “Right now Chicago has a very young open data ecosystem, and they’re doing some cool stuff,” says Sheldon. “But we’re asking: ‘how can we move beyond one-shot apps from hackathons and move to where businesses can be built on this data?’”

The team is also meeting with community groups, non-profits and journalists to identify needs and opportunities outside of the governmental and entrepreneurial spheres. “There’s multiple layers,” Sheldon says about the process. “There’s open data, getting it out there, and then asking, ‘how do you contextualize it? How do you get this data to people who can do something about it to drive civic action?’”

Detroit: Blight, Access, and Rebirth

Not every municipality that applies has a set roadmap. In some cases, those are the cities where the needs are most dire. In the case of Detroit, the city’s goals were less specific than Chicago’s. “Initially they submitted a proposal that gave an overview about the issues they wanted to tackle,” says Detroit Fellow and community organizer Alicia Rouault. “For example, they wanted to figure out how to deal with vacancy and blighted property with technology. There’s a need for a consolidated point of entry for the public to access info about property in Detroit.”

With the team on the ground for five weeks, the members are working to identify opportunities to support initiaives both inside and outside of city hall to better serve disadvantaged residents and community-building efforts. “A big priority area is engagement,” Rouault says. “We’re looking at issues of access to information, and also working to get the citizen-up perspective.” To do this, the team is casting a wide net. “We’re looking at the Department of Transportation and things we can do about bus schedules and gaps in the process, as well as the urban farming community and the arts community, to see how we can support the work they’re doing.”

Rouault sees an opportunity to not only facilitate more efficient and effective government services, but also contribute to Detroit’s economic rebirth. In her meetings, Rouault has observed that “people are frustrated with the public perception, the way newspapers and magazines have focused on what’s called ‘ruin porn’, when in fact the city is full of wonderful people doing amazing things and it’s a vibrant place. We hope to promote the work that’s being done here.”

Austin: Making Connections in a Wired City

In the case of Austin, the city explicitly requested assistance with its efforts to improve communication and engagement with the citizenry. “The city wants to reach out to the community better,” says designer Emily Wright Moore of the Austin team. “There’s a huge push to get data open on the portal so developers can use it, the problem is having disparate systems that don’t link to one another,” she says, echoing the sentiments of city officials and Gov 2.0 developers in many municipalities, who contend with mountains of data silo’d in proprietary or outdated applications only used by a specific department.

In some cases, solutions to such problems aren’t as imposing as they might first seem. “You have to talk to people, listen to them, and sometimes the answer is really easy,” Moore says. “The city has 12,000 employees and they’re using paper timesheets. Human Resources told us ‘this is a huge problem, but we don’t want you deal with this.’ I tried to explain to them that we can start small, and build from there—have one pilot department, and give them fillable PDF’s.”

The team is also looking to connect Austin’s thriving web development community with city officials. “One thing we’re really focusing on is the civic coding community,” says Moore. “A lot of that community exists, but it's not necessarily unified or directed to working with the city,” says Moore’s teammate Joe Merante, a lawyer, policy analyst and developer. “We’re hoping to be a catalyst for getting these people to talk."

The team is also considering how they can serve the city’s low-income communities. “We haven’t gotten to reach out to areas like East Austin yet,” Moore says. “But it’s on our radar. We’re considering organizing teaching hackathons in some of the city’s economically disadvantaged areas.”

Serving the Citizens Who Live the Data

To paraphrase comedian Lewis Black, city governments aren’t large buildings that walk around doing stuff—they’re made up of individual people. And some of those officials and employees will inevitably be resistant to Code for America’s efforts, whether out of complacency, disenchantment with failed previous technology initiatives, or a distrust of outsiders. For their part, some citizens and community groups view Gov 2.0 efforts suspiciously, believing that cities should focus on pressing needs that may not be best served by new technologies, and posing questions about how open government data could be misused.

“I think it’s good for people to skeptical about change in city government, but it’s also important for the government of cities to try new approaches,” says Pahlka. “It’s about offering approaches and learning about the cities’ needs and the challenges they have.” When working with the city officials, “We try to make it a two way thing,” she adds. “We don’t want to fall in to the consultant trap where we’re telling government what they should be doing.”

In Sheldon’s view, it’s essential to not lose sight of the ultimate goal: to better serve communities and inspire civic action. “A lot of these conversations are happening at the city level, but having conversations with people at the community level is also really important,” he says.

He notes that when pushing open data initiatives, the type of data released and how it’s contextualized can directly affect citizens, sometimes negatively. Speaking of the larger Gov 2.0 movement, he says, “we can’t just keep putting out crime maps. Crime data is the first thing that’s always released, and there’s little context added to that. I don’t think that changes anybody’s perceptions or makes them think differently about the world around them. You have to ask, 'how is the media framing the data, and how can the community contextualize it itself?' Open data has a very broad, grass-roots element, so it’s important to create diverse groups where people can have those conversations with the other people who are living that data.”

Peer-to-Peer Civic Governance

While the teams on the ground in the eight charter cities are busy identifying needs, brainstorming solutions, they’re also looking to connect tech-minded government officials with civic-minded developers in the community so that the applications they develop over the next nine months will remain supported in the years ahead. Code for America views these programs as a starting point, not a finish line, for municipalities. To facilitate these connections, each team is hosting meetings and mixers, and organizing hackathons that will take place during Code Across America: A National Day of Civic Innovation on Saturday, February 25th.

Looking forward, Pahlka’s goals for Code for America remain both pragmatic and idealistic. “I’d like us to figure out how 311 can go from being a one-way transaction to something we can all share,” she says. Pahlka envisions 311 as more than cities providing “customer service”—she sees it as an opportunity for municipalities and citizens to explore a peer-to-peer model of city governance.

“You can’t fix government if citizens aren’t deeply involved,” she says. “I think the future of government is much more peer-to-peer. It’s a platform for people lending a hand and helping one another. If we can find new ways for cities to interact with citizens, and citizens step up to the plate and act like the institution of government belongs to them and the health of communities are something they can take a part in, then we’ll have done something that we can be proud of.”

(Disclosure: Paul M. Davis is writing event recaps of Code for America’s “Data for the Public Good” talks for event sponsor Greenplum on a freelance basis. Research and reporting for this Shareable article was conducted independently from Code for America or Greenplum.)

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