The First Months of Code for America

Code for America’s City Program Director Alissa Black speaks about transforming government via technology and what to expect in 2012.
by | March 15, 2011

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

Earlier this year, a new nonprofit called Code for America (CfA) dedicated itself to pairing techies with the public sector to create easily transferrable apps for cities. Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are the first cities to receive a team of open source Web programmers for 11 months (at a cost of $250,000 per city).

As CfA's City Program Director, Alissa Black works closely with the current cities to understand the problems they face and help figure out how a CfA partnership might assist them in finding solutions. This past February, fellows conducted user interviews with city staff, community leaders and different stakeholders to understand and validate the problem the four cities laid out in their initial applications.

Those interviews, Black says, led to a huge understanding of what's going on in a city and how its government works. It also identified many "quick wins," or relatively small and easy-to-implement projects that ultimately support the main problem that CfA is trying to help the city solve. "What I've found is that during a fiscal crisis, a lot of cities are or want to approach problem solving differently," she says. "So it's natural that Code for America is a good fit for that."

In a phone interview last week, Black discussed the status of the 2011 fellowships and what's in store for the potential 2012 hosts (which will be announced in June) and fellows (applications now available) in this condensed and edited transcript.

You mention that cities want to approach problems differently in tough economic times. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Cities are used to a certain process that involves reaching out to typical vendors -- a sort of formal, regimented process of creating an RFP to solve a problem, reaching out to vendors that have a pre-built solution. You invest in them to implement it into your city, and then you're locked in. Code for America is approaching it differently because we bring a group of fellows who have this start-up mentality and culture. We partner them with the cities so that not only are we creating change though the use of technology and experimentation, but we are also influencing the city staff because of our partnership. We are demonstrating new techniques and new tools to approach future problems differently.

When our fellows were in their cities during the month of February, a lot of what they did was build connections between city staff, community groups and local developers. Jeff Friedman in Philadelphia (chief of staff to Allan Frank, Philadelphia's Chief Technology Officer) told me that we were like mysterious strangers that came into his city and taught his city's staff that they had the magic in them all along. He was alluding to the fact that it's not hard for city employees to reach out to the community. That should be just what happens, but it doesn't happen. That's really a different approach. It doesn't have to be large scale vendor lock-ins; it can be these kind of lightweight, creative uses of technology that can solve core problems in a city.

Can you explain what's going on with the 2011 fellowships and some of the innovative things you're seeing?

One of the cool things they're working on in Philly right now is SEPTA [the city's transportation authority] didn't have a mobile app that identified real-time information about their buses. So during one of our local events, the fellow who's partnered with SEPTA got real-time information and put it on a map enabled for mobile phones so you can view that information very easily.

Our project in Boston is really focused on education. Through initial interviews, Kim Rice (the COO of Boston Public Schools) had said that transportation was a huge problem. Parents had to call into a hotline to get information about where their child's bus was. Kids could travel on buses for 30 minutes to get their schools -- and that's compounded when you have snow. Our fellows were able to get access from three different data sets to build an app for parents to give them real-time information about where their child's bus is. [This project is still in development, and the city is looking into the feasibility of such an app.]

After the 11-month fellowship is up, does your partnership with the city completely end?

There are a lot of benefits to the cities aside from just the engagement with our fellows and that kind of ultimate solution that we're providing at the end of the year. There are the quick wins. There is this kind of network that we build for them while we're in their cities and engaged with the community. Then there's the Code for America network, so they will remain a part of our network where they will have access to opportunities to collaborate and share with our future cities. All cities really are beneficiaries of the work that we're doing with these four cities because the projects will go into Civic Commons, which is an area where governments share different open source technologies. Our projects will go in there to be implemented in any city across the country.

When you look at potential partner cities, what do you look for?

One thing is that they've identified a problem. So when I talk to cities -- and I've probably talked to over 100 cities about the problems they're facing -- I can see trends in the problems they state. So when we're viewing them for selection into our future program, we look at, "OK, is this a problem that we've heard about in other cities?" Because what we build for them, the solution that we provide, we want it to be reusable so that other cities will benefit.

When you go over each city's application, what are some other important factors?

What we're looking for in our partners is what we're based on: What we're really trying to do is change the way that government works and uses technology. We're looking for leaders or partners that are committed to change and are willing to sustain the progress that we make during that year. By that, I mean people or leaders who are interested in working on projects that promote efficiency and cost savings. So that is one of our evaluation criteria when we look at the problem area that they've applied for us to solve.

We are also looking for transparency and if there is opportunity to promote transparency in their city through our program. Then there's citizen participation -- are they talking about a problem that we can engage citizens in to help solve?

The last one is reusability. When we engaged with cities -- like I described with Boston -- we just don't leave them with a solution and walk away like a typical vendor would do. We actually have created a network and a way for them to sustain and grow our solution. I think the reason that we focus on strong leadership is because you have to have that leadership to ensure that there's a continual focus on sustaining and growing our solutions. I think strong leaders have the ability to take the learnings from our program and apply them to future projects.

When a host city comes to you with their Web-based application idea, do you run with that idea? Do the fellows change it as they're working with the city?

During our 2011 program, we asked the cities to propose a project. That meant cities came to us with what a Web app would look like, or [what] they thought would be great to bring into government. It turned out that we really wanted to leverage the brainstorm that we have with the city staff, industry experts and the fellows, and have that shape what that application could look like rather than have the cities try to identify what that would look like in advance.

We found that in a lot of cases, what they defined in the beginning is definitely not what we're building. We didn't want the cities thinking that they were applying to get a certain Web application that we would build for them. We wanted it to be more about solution building, more about the process and partnering around what the actual solution should be... We have changed that a little bit in the application for the cities in 2012. We asked them to just talk about a problem area ... because we didn't find it useful for them to think about what sort of Web app they would want to see. I don't think it takes full advantage of the expertise of our fellows and the information that they are gathering that whole month.

We are in month two-and-a-half, and we are still learning. I think every day we learn about the process. We do take advantage of having continual feedback from the city, so part of what I do is I serve as a liaison between the cities and fellows. We learn from the cities what is working, what's not working and how I could improve the process for 2012. We get feedback every two weeks from the fellows through surveys and one-on-one interviews. It's a continual learning process for us.


More from Columns