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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While Code for America is still fairly new, I asked Catherine how the group goes about tracking its success. In fact, Code for America actively tracks its metrics, which come down to a few areas:

  • Continuity. Did the program continue beyond the year of sponsored fellowship? According to Code for America's website, the goal is "not just building tools that are relevant for a few months while the fellowship is happening and then die, but technology that can be repurposed and maintained and easily redeployed" in other cities.
  • Policy change. Did engagement with Code for America result in a specific policy or rule change? The organization hopes "some open data policy or open gov policy that gets created based on our relationship."
  • Open source. Another metric is how many times the tools that are developed have been reused. Some of those raw numbers are available via GitHub and other tools commonly used in open source projects.
  • Engagement. Code for America tracks the "engagement of the community, brigade members and number of brigades across the country." In part, this is measured via the number of people who participate in the organization's events, such as Code Across America, which happens every February. There are also hackathons.

America and the world
Catherine's job is to bring Code for America programs to other parts of the world. Pilot partners will be announced in May. According to Catherine, "The goal for the next year is to really build a network, while we're partnering with global organizations, who share our values and want to implement a version of the Code for America model where they live. It is not really about sending fellows in Peace Corps style, but building a network of like-minded civic technologists so that we are creating a global ecosystem of sustainable civic tools and technological standards."

The kind of challenges faced by most internationalization projects are compounded by the fact that "Code for America is built on a lot of assumptions about the way that the American system of government works, so it is not going to translate necessarily one-for-one to every place we want to work." Catherine notes the approach involves "really thinking about what the core values are that are universal and how we can protect those and advance those while providing the freedom to create a local framework that is going to work in that country's context."

You can, too
Want to participate? Well, as a nonprofit, Code for America accepts donations. But whether you are a coder or not, you can get involved in other ways. "It is really just citizens who care about making their cities and their local government more efficient and more engaged with the people who live there," says Catherine. "We need all hands on deck for that kind of work."

Talented, civic-minded people can help, whether applying for an Accelerator grant for their big ideas or starting a brigade to fork an app or two for their city.

Plus, key innovators already exist in local government. Catherine says their participation is "a crucial part of the equation. They are already working in city government, and they are not getting the attention and respect they deserve. We're really trying to empower them and help them do work that they need and want to do. We have had really great partners in all of our cities."

This article, "Code for America: Think global, code local," was originally published at Keep up on the latest developments in application development and read more of Andrew Oliver's Strategic Developer blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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