Code for America: Think global, code local

Code for America is bringing positive change, recruiting developers to apply simple Internet technologies to everyday municipal interactions

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To channel the efforts of programmers who want to do good and gain experience in the bargain, Code for America offers three programs:

Fellowship. According to Bracy, "If people are interested in doing a year of service, the Fellowship program is a great opportunity. It's for technologists, engineers, developers, designers, UX people. We send teams of designers, developers, and urban planner program managers who have some experience in technology." The program runs for 11 months and connects technologists with people in government. For those looking to make a difference while making connections, this could be a real career opportunity as well as civic opportunity.

Brigades. The Brigade program is, according to Catherine, "a volunteer program that is active in a couple dozen cities. If it is not active where you live, you can start one. It's basically a group of techies who volunteer locally working on different projects in their city and usually promoting open data and reusing applications that are forked for their cities."

Accelerator. The Accelerator program is sort of like an incubator for civic startups. It gives worthy ideas a $25,000 grant, a place to live/work in San Francisco, marketing assistance, training, and the kinds of connections you need to make this sort of thing work.

The apps
Code for America has been in operation for just over three years. When Eric Knorr wrote about it back in 2010, not long after it had started, some comments were along the lines of "so where are the apps?" One could hardly ask that now. Code for America lists at least 28 different apps and programs on its website.

One commentator on Knorr's article also noted: "America obviously has lots of problems ... but I never expected lack of apps to be anywhere close to the top of the list." But Code for America offers more than that. The apps are part of a larger program of civic engagement. As Catherine put it, "Code for America is doing some of the best work in this space, civic technology, and doing it in the way that recognizes the value of public service and doesn't assume that technology alone will solve all of our problems."

The intent isn't just to throw an app at an issue and hope that solves it, but to launch modest programs like Adopt-a-Hydrant, which helps ensure fire hydrants stay unburied during snowstorms. It's about both organizing and engaging civic-minded members of the community -- code plus people.

Another example is BlightStatus, which helps people understand the disposition of blighted properties. In Durham, N.C., where I live, I frequently walk by great, abandoned old buildings and wonder who owns it and why something isn't being done. I've no idea how to even access that information outside of the somewhat useless and nowhere near comprehensive Web page my city provides.

A few years ago, when I came into some money, I decided to make better choices about where I put my charitable contributions. I stopped doing the grocery checkout "would you like to donate to?" impulse contribution and started studying what makes organizations effective.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has identified that nonprofits tracking metrics and effectiveness, much like businesses, function more effectively. (Full disclosure: My company does back-end services and support for at least one program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.) I discovered this simple idea goes back a long while and was pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation in the early part of the last century.

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