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Developers seek new challenge: Fix city hall

Fellows from Code for America recently unveiled their latest collaboration with a city government, a services website built for Honolulu's City Hall.

Imagine you’re a software developer – one of those infinitely employable young people working in Silicon Valley, where the jobs are plentiful and high-paying, where your industry is one of the most exciting and where the perks to your job are legendary. Would you give it up to work as a volunteer for a city government?

For the fellows at Code for America, the answer is an enthusiastic, "Yes!" 

Eight teams of developers, coders and designers are taking part in this year’s Code for America fellowship. Organized into teams of three, they have been working with cities like New Orleans and Chicago to create new apps, websites and other digital tools to make life a little easier at the local level.

In Macon, Georgia, the fellows redesigned the bus maps to make it more readable and to help track performance. In Philadelphia, they created a text-to-vote application so city planners could do spot surveys and ask citizens which services they wanted in their neighborhoods.

Asking city governments to open up to the fellows for a year is enough of a challenge. Getting them to embrace the startup models of design, development and deployment takes a rethinking of how government works.

It’s no simple task, but that’s the core of Code for America’s mission.

Founded by Jen Pahlka, the non-profit isn’t just trying to provide budget-strapped city governments with cheap software. She explained that the mission is to engage people in government. “Part of the vision that I have is that we’ll be asking citizens not just to express an opinion, but to lend a hand.” 

Sheba Najmi used to work on the user-experience team at Yahoo Mail. Now she’s working with Honolulu City Hall to revamp their public-facing website.

“It’s not about the applications that we’re building,” said Najmi. “It's really sort of about the culture shift, the relationships that we built and helping the people who are already interested in making change.”

Code for America is only in its second year. Housed in a beautiful, cavernous office space in San Francisco, the fellows share ideas in an open workspace space that encourages them to lean over and engage the fellows assigned to other teams.

Modeled after AmeriCorps, the program is funded by a mix of private and public donations, much of it raised from the city governments that host the teams. Fellows are chosen from among hundreds of applicants. 

All of the software is open-source, so cities can share the programming and designers can move between teams to share lessons or tools. The office is cluttered with sticky notes and wide worktables so that designers can walk over and exchange ideas.

Liz Hunt is one such designer. Assigned to the Philadelphia team, but on loan to the Honolulu team, she looks at her year at Code for America as a point in her career when everything will have changed.

When asked what she will do when the fellowship concludes, she said, “I know that I don’t want to go back to my prior life and that’s one of the things that’s sort of crystallized for me this year.”

 

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