Coders, come to the aid of your country

A new nonprofit, Code for America, marshals volunteer developers to build apps for city governments

This is the season of nonprofit giving, so allow me to draw your attention to one of my favorite nonprofit organizations, Code for America.

Based on the Teach for America model, Code for America helps civic-minded developers and designers channel their efforts into improving the way city governments work using Web technology. Just as Teach for America trains and sends capable teachers to underserved schools, Code for America recruits talented developers, designers, and product managers; gives them a crash course in municipal government; and sets them to work developing Web applications for selected cities.

The economic downturn has dealt -- and is continuing to deal -- a crushing blow to city budgets, in many cases halting initiatives that would improve government effectiveness over the long term. Code for America works with city managers to identify projects that can benefit most from Web-based solutions.

The 11-month Code for America fellowship program sounds like a fantastic way for young talent to gain experience. Fellows get a living-wage stipend, health care, and expenses-paid travel to their assigned city to network face-to-face and learn how that city's government functions. For 2011, the first year of the program, 20 fellows were selected from 362 applicants to work on projects for four cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

One of the things I like about Code for America is that it was founded to address projects that promote transparency, collaboration, and citizen engagement. Also, the Web apps coming out of the program are designed to be portable, so other cities can adopt them as well.

I'm a big believer in open government -- and in the idea that technology can improve both the delivery of government services and help revive the democratic process. I'm tired of the patronizing notion that ordinary citizens are either too dumb or too anti-government to participate. If people understand the real issues and have the means to connect, they will engage and help find solutions. Code for America is providing a key part of the technology platform upon which that engagement can occur at a local level.

Although Code for America accepts donations of any size, what it really needs is time and commitment. If you're a sharp developer, designer, or product manager, you might consider applying for the 2012 Code for America fellowship program. The deadline to apply is March 1, 2011.

This article, "Coders, come to the aid of your country," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter and on your mobile device at infoworldmobile.com.

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