Code for America: An elegant solution for government IT problems

Vivek Wadhwa
Contributor, Innovations December 19, 2011

Parents in Boston complained bitterly about the needlessly complex enrollment process for public schools. To sign up their children for school, parents were forced to navigate a Byzantine 28-page pamphlet seemingly designed to confuse. What’s more, the process made it difficult for parents to make smart choices about schools based on criteria they considered important, such as proximity and user ratings.

But this year, Joel Mahoney, a Code for America fellow taking a break from a tech career as a chief technology officer and entrepreneur, saw the problem, mapped out a solution and wrote a Web application, Discover BPS, that has a simple, easy-to-use interface and includes all manner of sorting capabilities.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

He did this in two months, by himself.

Under normal circumstances, getting something such as that done in the Boston government would take two years, between requests for proposals, procurement rules and bidding processes. But Mahoney’s background set him apart, and he was already “procured” by the city. This meant that as soon as the office of Mayor Thomas M. Menino (D) explained the problem to Mahoney, he could get to work, talking to parents and building a prototype. The Boston city government saved tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in costs for private contractors or man-hours for their own software developers. Most important, the problem was quickly solved to the satisfaction of all parties.

Code for America is the technology world’s equivalent of the Peace Corps or Teach for America. The premise is simple and elegant. America’s cities need technology help. State, federal and local governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on IT systems and solutions. But a significant percentage of this money is wasted fighting red tape, jumping through bureaucratic hoops or paying for poor execution by legacy government contractors who manage to drag out simple projects and turn them into money pits.

Code for America, a nonprofit group started by Jennifer Pahlka, who formerly ran the Gov 2.0 and Web 2.0 technology shows for conference and publication giant UBM TechWeb, offers an alternative to the old, broken path of government IT. Young technophiles from Google and Microsoft apply to spend a year of their time working on problems they discover as on-site fellows in cities across the country. They bring fresh blood to the solution process, deliver agile coding and software development skills, and frequently offer new perspectives on the latest technology — something that is often sorely lacking from municipal government IT programs. This is a win-win for cities that need help and for technologists that want to give back and contribute to lower government costs and the delivery of improved government service.

Code for America matches fellows with cities in the program, publicizes their efforts, and monitors their progress. The cities get highly skilled coders — who might make six-figure salaries in the private sector — for free. The citizens get improved government services.

But the benefits go beyond the delivery of a particular project. The code for all projects is open source and made available to any city or government entity. This means state and local governments gain a growing repository of well-written, modern code that, in many cases, will directly address specific programmatic needs common to governments providing services to the public. This is already proving to be a great way to solve problems quickly and at minimal cost.

For example, in Boston, one of three cities in the program last year, another fellow, Erik Michaels-Ober, started thinking about the city’s several thousand fire hydrants, which have to be dug out of the snow every winter. Michaels-Ober believed that residents living near the hydrants might be willing to dig them out. So he crafted a simple Web application to encourage Bostonians to claim a hydrant using a simple map interface on their desktop or mobile browser. To drive usage, he added game dynamics, allowing citizens to name their hydrants or “steal” other players’ hydrants if they failed to dig them out in a timely fashion. The “crowd-sourced” game, Adopt-a-Hydrant, has saved Bostonians a significant amount of government spending and made the city a safer place.

Eight months later and nearly 6,000 miles away, the City of Honolulu IT director, Forest Frizzell, found the Adopt-a-Hydrant project on Code for America’s public code repository. He thought the app could quickly be rescripted to encourage Honolulu residents to maintain the tsunami sirens on the beach. These sirens are rendered inoperable when thieves steal the batteries. Instead of increasing the frequency of city maintenance crews monitoring, which would raise costs to the city, Frizzell is letting any citizen with a smartphone or a Web browser check for batteries and record their findings. In an era of diminished state and local taxes, it might, indeed, take a village — and an army of benevolent coders — to keep the lights on, the potholes patched, the sirens blaring and the hydrants flowing.

Code for America is expanding to eight cities in 2012. Let’s hope this expansion foretells a government technology revolution that is long overdue. The status quo of bloated, inefficient technology management for government is no longer acceptable.

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