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Feb. 17, 2011 11:00 am

Code for America Philadelphia fellows start work with City: Video interview

After a month of training in relevant skills, style and city government, all of the fellows are being put up for the month of February in their respective cities. In March, all the fellows will make the pilgrimage back to the CFA headquarters in San Francisco.

Mjumbe Poe, one of the Code for America Philadelphia fellows, speaks with Tyler looking on.

Aaron Ogle was quite taken with Philadelphia’s first Deputy Mayor for Public Safety.

“Man, you need a Youtube channel,” Ogle told Everett Gillison in a meeting.

Ogle, 30, is something of the leader of the seven-pack of Code for America fellows that parachuted into City Hall earlier this month.

When you have developers like us do the work, really beautiful things can happen

said Ogle, a former developer for local GIS shop Azavea. He is one of two Philly natives in this, the inaugural year for an experimental program that offers chosen cities a team of coders for a year to create open source products that make government more efficient, transparent or ideally both.

In January, Ogle and Mjumbe Poe, 27, who was formerly doing contract code work for the University of Pennsylvania, landed in San Francisco to meet their new teammates and more than a dozen other young developers who would be working for the other inaugural CFA cities Washington D.C., Boston and Seattle.

After a month of training in relevant skills, style and city government, all of the fellows are being put up for the month of February in their respective cities. In March, all the fellows will make the pilgrimage back to the CFA headquarters in San Francisco where they will all presumably hold hands, share what they’ve learned and by September have an alpha version of some kind of application.

That’s what brought Ogle, Poe and the rest of the team in the gaze of Gillison.

Aaron Ogle and Tyler Stalder. Photo by Nicholas Vadala

Meet Your CFA Fellows Twitter List

Aaron Ogle | 30 years old | Philadelphia | @atogle
Specialty: Urban sustainability applications

Mjumbe Poe | 27 | Philly | @mjumbewu
Specialty: Education software

John Mertens | Iowa | @mertonium
Specialty: Institutional web development

Matt Lewis | 24 | San Francisco | @mattlewisSF
Specialty: Social media

Michael Evans | 29 | Mountain View, Calif. | @EvansML
Specialty: Data visualization

Pete Fecteau | 27 | Michigan | @peterfecteau
Specialty: Nonprofit web development

Tyler Stalder | 23| Kansas | @tylerstalder
Specialty: Enterprise development and design

“I don’t think local government should be building apps. They should just be opening data,” said Michael Evans, 29, formerly a data visualization consultant from the Palo Alto, Calif. area. “When you have developers [like us do the work] really beautiful things can happen.”

Everyone involved with CFA is careful to manage expectations. The CFA fellows aren’t going to create revolution. They just hope to inspire it a little bit.

Some kind of doohickey is going to be produced by year’s end, but the conversations and relationships that these fellows create are meant to reverberate across and bolster every city’s movement toward greater transparency through technology.

“…One very important long tail is the nation. Our project is going to serve Philadelphia, but it’s also openly shared with anyone  who wants to use it, any city that has a common problem that our project can solve,” said Pete Fecteau, 27, who was previously working with the Salvation Army near his home in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“It’s not all that local,” Fecteau, who spoke about his CFA experience at Ignite Philly 7, goes on. “It goes out to the nation. It’s open source. Literally someone from the European Union can use it or beyond.”

A big selling point of the program is meant to be cost: big impact through technology talent on the cheap.

The City of Philadelphia is paying $225,000, which covers stipends for the fellows, says CFA lead organizer Jen Pahlka, “although the city is already seeing benefits over and above the project they are assigned to do, primarily cost savings from process improvements the fellows are able to implement during their year of service. There are also intangible benefits to the city in exposure to agile development methods and lean startup approaches to problem solving in a civic context.”

That cost is nothing compared to the kind of impact and return on investment that the city gets in return, says Division of Technology Chief of Staff Jeff Friedman. Friedman says the kind of service CFA is offering would cost the city closer to $1.48 million in consulting costs. CFA, which handles other costs, like travel, is funded, as Pahlka says, “by individuals, corporations and most significantly by foundations including the Knight Foundation and the Omidyar Network.”

Matt Lewis, along with Mjumbe Poe and John Mertens. Photo by Nicholas Vadala

All of that has gotten the fellows this far.

This month, with help from the city’s Division of Technology, Ogle and Poe are leading Evans, Fecteau and three other bright young developers though a city they don’t know much about outside of U.S. history and dated Bruce Springsteen singles. The group will interview City leadership, attend civic association meetings and tech community events and, yes, face hour-long interviews with local technology news site Technically Philly. The aim is to get a sense of common, simple problems between the city and its residents. The fellows will take those themes back to the West Coast and try to put something together that might help.

Watch video by Sarah Schu and Nicholas Vadala of an hour-long interview of the CFA fellows by Technically Philly. Excuse partially damaged audio.

In describing these city meetings, the fellows expressed near shock at how genuine, interested and supportive all parties seem to be.

“We’re able to talk to all of them, all the department heads, we’re on their schedules,” said John Mertens, from Iowa, recently in Scotland building websites for Scottish government and others. “Everyone we have talked to is ‘How can we do that, how can we use technology to get that done.”

Tyler Stalder, 23, an enterprise application developer from Wichita, Kan., said: “We walk into a meeting and get, ‘here is a list of things we want you to change tomorrow… There is excitement.”

That must be great news to the ears of CFA organizer Pahlka, who seems to be betting that the great obstacle in city government utilization of consumer-facing IT is capacity, not politics, fear or complacency. The fellows say the early results confirm it true and that’s no small bet, particularly in Philadelphia.

Michael Evans and Pete Fecteau. Photo by Nicholas Vadala

Questions of the digital divide come up whenever you talk about building mobile or online tools in a city where a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line. Pahlka has defended a sentiment that these fellows echo: CFA is the start to a greater end, and, as Ogle puts it later, by empowering community leaders, neighborhood organizations and the like, the information these tools make more accessible can find its way to the people.

Perhaps the greater concern is the broader community of Philadelphians who might let a piece of technology that lets them interact with city government go by like a fart in the wind.

“There’s going to be a lot of people who don’t care what we’re doing, and that’s fine,” said Mertens. “We want to take the people who do care and make their lives easier and doing that with technology.”

Sometimes just getting a team thinking on this helps, says Matt Lewis, 24, who wears a thick black beard and was working as a social media strategist in San Francisco. Lewis said the fellows were in a meeting between departments and a CFA conversation prompted the two leaders to find out one had a piece of technology the other was planning on purchasing. Collaboration was found.

CFA Fellows with Mayor Nutter

“And collaboration is the start,” said Ogle.

Ogle has a tuft of blond hair, wears neat sweaters and in public settings, tends toward the polite and straightforward, though he can be as silly as the rest of his team. In a city IT stakeholders meeting this month, he introduced himself by saying his former boss at Azavea Robert Cheetham, who was also present, taught him “that technology can save the world.”

Maybe that’s why Ogle was so moved by city Public Safety czar Everett Gillison.

“Hearing him say ‘These are people. These are not statistics. We are not at war. We are communicating. We are on the same team… What we need to do is be communicating to people,” Ogle said. “They are really on to something good.”

Is this a litmus test for the city’s interest in openness? Maybe. But while all this sounds good, to start, the CFA fellows are meant to build something, a tangible tool that all parties involved can point to come the end of 2011.

“This is all an experiment,” Poe said, focusing on creating momentum for government action in technology-fueled transparency. “We should be working for when CFA shouldn’t be necessary anymore.”

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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