Dangercast #11 – Code For America

Jade Meskill, Derek Neighbors, Nicole Neditch, and Luke Norris discuss Code For America.

Transcript

Jade Meskill:  Hello. Welcome to another episode of the “Dangercast.” We’ll talk about the culture and design of Gangplank. I’m Jade Meskill.

Derek Neighbors:  I’m Derek Neighbors.

Nicole Neditch:  I’m Nicole Neditch.

Luke Norris:  And Luke Norris.

Jade:  We have Nicole and Luke here from Code for America. Tell us a little bit about what Code for America is about and then we’ll get into some of the other things we want to talk about.

Luke:  Yeah, sure. Code for America is a non‑profit start‑up based in San Francisco, California. We have the notion, that not only coding across America takes place just in San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, but it’s actually’s happening around the US and around the world now.

We aim to help cities better leverage technology, become more innovative in the way that they respond to the needs of citizens, use technology and engage with citizens to create a democracy or government that’s for the people, of the people, and most importantly by the people.

Jade:  Awesome. We were talking right before we hit record, about how this ties in well with Gangplank’s Local initiative. On the Dangercast we’ve just started getting into the details of some of the different initiatives that we have.

Derek, you had some interesting thoughts about how those align. Maybe you could share that with the listeners.

Derek:  Yeah, one of the things that Code for America does…we’ve got a local brigade here. We’ve done several hack‑a‑thons. Our Labs program, as well as our Local program, participate in Code for America quite a bit, and the number of initiatives around it.

One of the things that gets lost for people that tend to be more techy in nature is they think that it is solely about code and hacking, but in reality it’s really about changing how we think about how we govern people, and what the governance model looks like.

A large part of that is creating more transparency, in creating better ways to engage. In making it easier for the people to be active in how they’re governed, and how they run their city, and how they create their city.

Which I think completely overlaps with what we’re trying to do with our Local program. Which is really not only those things, but also how do we create attachment to place, how do we do place‑making, and a big part of that is feeling like you’re an active participant in moving your community forward.

So there’s a whole lot of overlap. We certainly tried to get Code for America in Chandler three or four years ago when the program first started, and it just…Things weren’t quite right for that to happen, so we’re super excited to see them do some regional stuff here with some partners.

I’m excited. I’m super excited about what the potential is there. Maybe you guys could tell us a little bit about ‑‑ we’re familiar with it, but I don’t know if all the listeners are, maybe you could tell us a little about Code for America brings in some fellows to work with a city and community partner.

Maybe you could us a bit about like how somebody, how those fellows are chosen. What looks like how many there are and what the relationship is between the city that they go to and what the expectations are/aren’t, and what the goals are around some of that.

Nicole:  Sure. Code for America operates…it’s a competitive program so both cities apply to be a Code for America city and fellows apply to be fellows. We had about 650 applicants this year that were from all over the country and we chose about 30 that are going to go into 10 cities this year.

There are three fellows per city and usually the team of three consists of a designer, a UX designer somebody who is thinking about the user experience. A programmer, somebody who is going to code that experience, and then a project manager or a researcher, something in that type of a role.

Those three fellows that come out ‑‑ they go through a month of training in the month of January and then they come out of each of the cities so Mesa is one of the cities this year and they are going to embed themselves in the cities for the entire month just to do a ton of research and that’s going to go into creating an application that has impact and scale within the community.

Derek:  And so all of the prior work that’s been done by fellows in cities, is that available for other cities to use or how does that work? Is it that then a property of the city or does it go back an open source what does that look like?

Luke:  Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that we’re most interested in and committed to is building an open source environment. And so fundamentally, if you think about the role of cities, whether there are cities with 2 million people or 70,000, fundamentally cities face the same types of problems, in the way that they deliver service to their citizens.

When we go into cities, we build the applications that are in an open source environment that allows for those applications to be re‑deployed in the other communities and so the fellows’ primary objective is to create new piece of technology that impacts some types of problem that exist in the local community that we also know is evident around the other communities in the US.

But while they are there, they have the opportunity to turn back to some of their fellow alumni as well as Code for America to talk about how you can redeploy applications like a Doctor Hydrant or you can leverage other types of technologies that may have spun out into civic start‑ups which is something that we also really promote.

It’s an interesting part of our model and the way we help grow companies that can now become a part of the system of providing new service to government. Getting a piece of this 140 million dollar industry ‑‑ that is just huge for state and local IT spends.

Derek:  It’s really interesting that…I don’t think enough people choose to understand enough about how they’re governed to understand that cities, generally, are just giant companies that provide a number of services.

We tend to think of fire service and police service, that’s pretty easy to translate. It’s like having a plumber come out.

Jade:  It’s very tangible.

Derek:  Right, it’s very tangible. I understand that. I pick up a phone, I call it, somebody comes out, performs some service. I get that. But they don’t necessarily think of zoning, or planning, or code enforcement, or those type of things nearly being as service‑based as other things.

I find it very interesting that we do, Jade and I, both, do a lot of consulting in the start‑up or innovator space in technology. What I really hear you describing is a small start‑up team. You’ve got a designer, you’ve got a developer, and you’ve got a product person of some kind, whether it’s research or management. Whatever you’ve got.

Somebody looking out for the greater thing. You’re trying to attach them to a problem space within a service. How do we improve service delivery of some kind, either whether it be holistic service delivery, or an individual service delivery.

How do we basically create a mini‑startup around that in a short amount of time, and deliver and iterate on it?

To me, the thing that’s exciting is if we can start to get cities to start to believe this way, not only is there an opportunity for the private sector, but I there’s an opportunity for the public sector to start to say, instead of having these monolithic, siloed departments for service delivery, could we instead line up our organization, to say, what problems are we trying to solve?

Can we create these very small teams, maybe it’s not three people, maybe it’s five, people, six people that are focused on how do we best solve that problem. People need to do permitting, maybe we have a permitting team, and it’s their job to integrate technology and problem solving and design and a number of things to say, how do we make that a super easy in our city? How do we make that the best service possible?

So is part of that…what are some of the things you’ve seen developed in previous classes, or previous segments of Code for America in other states? What are some of the biggest successes or lessons learned that you’ve seen come out of that?

Luke:  Maybe I’ll talk a little bit about something that came out of Philadelphia, in part because you touched on some of the opportunity, then Nicole can definitely speak a little bit about what was built in Oakland and San Francisco.

You brought up planning as a function. A lot of really important decisions about cities and the way their built and the infrastructure that goes into those are made at small meetings where they’re at seven o’clock at night in a small room at City Hall, they’re not well publicized. Sometimes the room can’t accommodate more than 10 people, and they’re totally boring.

[crosstalk]

Luke:  In Philadelphia, which was a fellowship project in 2012, they basically said this is a problem that exists for us and other communities, so how can we fundamentally change the way that citizens interact with these planning decisions?

We looked at that and decided, what if we built something with really basic SMS‑based texting capabilities that overcome some of the issues of the digital divide? What about now asking people for input at the point of service where they’re encountering problems, or maybe where these decisions are actually going to impact.

If you now have this poster on a bus, or you’re at a line in City Hall, if you ask these questions now you can get really good, real time input from the people that are experiencing those problems.

By using just basic texting features ‑‑ and not smartphone enabled or having people go to a website ‑‑ you’re actually getting feedback from people that probably, A, would never have come to that city meeting, but more importantly people that probably would never have had the ability to ever know that they could provide feedback.

That’s a great example. We’ve done some incredible work in Oakland where Nicole actually was the city partner, and also did some really great stuff in San Francisco and San Mateo County this year as well.

Nicole:  In Oakland this year we were looking at access to information and what that looked like. As you touched on, the government provides service but we don’t necessarily always think of it as a service provider in the same way that you would imagine some of the private sector businesses would be.

Part of that is because we’ve got a monopoly on the service that we provide. There’s nobody else that is competing for this service delivery mechanism. So we don’t have anything to gauge ourselves towards except maybe other cities.

Something that was happening in Oakland a year ago when we were starting our Code for America fellowship, we had Occupy Oakland, there was a lot of requests for public information about how things were handled around the Occupy Oakland protests in Oakland. We were seeing a lot of backlash about people not feeling like they were being able to get the information that they needed about how things transpired and how the city was governing the town during this time.

So tons of service requests coming in, tons of public information requests coming in. People wanted copies of all emails over a certain period of time, things like that. The city wasn’t really providing those in a really timely manner.

We were getting a lot of press about how that was happening and it was hard on the city. It was a hard time for the city. So the fellows came in and they saw some of this tension and just this lack of trust between the citizens and the city, that was happening because of all of these that was happening at the time.

So they looked at how do we provide access to information in a more transparent, more easy‑to‑digest way? What they worked on was a public records request tracker basically and so you can submit a public records request. In the past, you submit a public records request, it gets thrown over a wall, you don’t really know where it’s going, who’s seeing it and when it’s going to be responded to.

They created a public view for that so that it was all transparent. So that you could see what requests were made, you can search on those requests, you can see the responses that came from the city. It really helped the city in ways that were great because the city is now able to actually see the different requests that are coming through, also and be able to monitor how it’s doing as a city as well.

In San Francisco we saw another application that was developed that was around food stamps. Basically what they noticed in San Francisco was that a lot of people were falling off food stamps and they didn’t even realize that that was happening until they were in line at the grocery store and they want to go and pay for their food, and they had their kids with them and all of a sudden they were ineligible for service.

They had been getting these letters in the mail but they were these long letters, they were very complicated letters. They were the kinds of things you kind of shove to the side until you have time to deal with.

They took a look at that letter and they thought, “OK, why is this happening? How do we notify people of this before they actually fall out of the system”? So they had started out wanting to make a Web application and then they realized that the people they were trying to target really weren’t using the Internet.

They didn’t really have smartphones and so they created a text message application. It’s a very simple application but it just goes out right before you’re about to fall off food stamps and you get a notification so that you can call and you can make the arrangements and you don’t fall off. It’s a very simple application but it’s going to do a ton for the city of San Francisco. It’s something that can be leveraged across cities.

Derek:  The thing that’s interesting is bringing up something that a lot of technologists forget. Which is, we tend to be the minority not the majority when it comes to our level of access to technology, to smartphones, to high speed Internet, to a number of those things. There are a lot of the services that are provided by cities aren’t available.

These are some of the design hacks or some of the hacks are how we do use older technology or how do we use things that we wouldn’t traditionally think of but can bring kind of that like hacker ethos. Sort of that technical bench to it to provide something that’s existed for a long time but people haven’t thought of it as a way to deliver it.

The other really interesting thing I heard you guys talking about earlier when we’d gone through the process of exploring for Chandler. One of the things that is unique about Code for America is it really requires a community partner as well as a city partner.

So it’s not just enough for a city to step up and say, “Hey, we want some fellows, let’s do this,” but I think that you guys recognize that there is need for community. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about why that decision is made and what some of the expectations are among the community partner side outside of essentially hoping for funding or what not but what is the expectation or why did you decide to include community and how do they fit into that process?

Luke:  Yeah, it’s really multi‑faceted. One of the reasons for that is often times, governments are doing really incredible really innovative things that there is not necessarily a communication channel for the city to share or there is not a lot of visibility into the community. So as we have community partners we have an opportunity to highlight some of the work that is really happening in cities that are making a difference.

The other part of it is we fundamentally want to engage citizens in the process of designing government and more importantly understanding how government can respond to their needs and how they can participate in their share of the economy. And so, as we have community partners we start to build a network of folks that are committed to demonstrating capacity we want to step up to that.

In some cities that we’re working in we have as many as 25 partners that are putting money on the table to say, “Help us bring Code for America to our city.” We are incredible fortunate here in the area to have ASU as the primary supporter of the project and I think that speaks volumes to not only who ASU is and the importance in value that they place on an innovation, but also the incredible access that they have to people, both academic students, community leaders across the region.

When you combine that with a really great forward‑looking, innovative group of folks in government, the success is just too incredible.

Derek:  Yeah, the thing that is interesting, Gangplank plays that role a lot of times for the cities that we are partners with. We see two things happen as we’ve seen a lot of people that tend to have distrust towards cities and so giving them like an intermediary where it’s easy to interface with Gangplank and there is a high level of trust there, then it bridges like a friend of a friend, like we can make the introduction and help get involved there.

But it also comes back the other direction and a lot of times the city ‑‑ they’re not techy enough or they don’t hit the right creative community but they’re OK telling their story to somebody who gets a snail mail water bill, or goes to the library on a regular basis or the senior center, but they’re not so good at the really busy fast‑paced person who like gets all of their consumption through email, or Twitter, or Facebook, or different things and so it’s sometimes nice to be able to submit those things back.

We definitely see a much higher level of engagement in people that participate in Gangplank and that all we’re really doing is rebroadcasting stuff that’s already coming straight out of the PR department or the city staff or what not.

It’s just stuff that they would never ever see because it’s released in a press release that nobody will read, oppose to, a 140‑character tweet with a link to a newspaper article or something somewhere.

I think it’s a great strategy, I mean I love what you guys are doing.

Jade:  We’re going to wrap this up but I am going to ask you a really hard question first before we close. The Gangplank, our core philosophy is that we need a radical transformation of how communities are built and grown and developed and the thing I am curious to hear from you guys is what does it look like when you’ve accomplished what you want to accomplish with Code for America?

How does the world look if that happens?

Luke:  Yeah, that’s definitely a tough question. I think it looks like a totally different environment that we live in, right? Where there’s higher levels of trust between citizens and government that’s driven by transparency and engagement on both sides.

We’re doing a lot of work around, “What are the principles that 21st‑century cities look like”? Those include a lot of things.

They are engaging in technology‑led innovation. They’re creating a culture of innovation. They’re leveraging partnerships both with public and private institutions, but also around multi‑jurisdictional or multi‑municipality type things.

Fundamentally it’s going to change all of the ways that a lot of us think about government, while they’re still providing these core services. I think what it’s going to change is more the attitudinal response that all of us have to government.

I think that the most aspirational role is ‑‑ what if people could love their government as much as they love their iPhone and their Android device?

When you think about that as the aspirational goal, that gets you there.

Jade:  That was an excellent on‑the‑spot response. I like that. All right, that sums it up. Thank you guys so much for coming out and recording with us.

Luke:  Thanks for having us.

Jade:  Yeah. We’ll catch you next time on the Dangercast.

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