Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka on bringing open government help to Philadelphia - Technical.ly Philly

Apr. 16, 2010 12:05 pm

Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka on bringing open government help to Philadelphia

If you talk to someone involved in government budget negotiations — from small towns to the federal government and everywhere in between — you might find a lot of eternal, undying truths. One that comes to mind is what gets funded in the lean times: fundamental core services and the projects near and dear to […]

If you talk to someone involved in government budget negotiations — from small towns to the federal government and everywhere in between — you might find a lot of eternal, undying truths.

One that comes to mind is what gets funded in the lean times: fundamental core services and the projects near and dear to the hearts of those most powerful and connected. It’s some variation of the old ‘bread and circuses.’

It’s why funding for government IT projects — particularly at the financially-tighter municipal level — are so hard to come by. They aren’t core services — their impact is often harder to grasp — and many in power haven’t much come to know the trans-formative potential for a more efficient, transparent and responsive government that can come from technology implementation. There are those who might more cynically say that those in power wouldn’t want any sweeping changes in government efficiency, transparency and responsiveness anyway.

Whatever the cause, it leaves us with a quandary.

Philadelphia has made strides for which credit is due, the reported improvement in the city’s 311 call center responsiveness arguably chief among them. Yet, still, as anyone who has ever tried to pay a parking ticket online or receive automated, Web updates from or oversight of any other city agency, there is a remarkable potential for more.

How do we help make cities take on technology innovation when it’s not in already strapped budgets?

There are crowd-sourced options, like the BigApps software contest that the City of New York put on, but attracting serious players for the chance of the cash is always a struggle.

So, what if tech professionals who want to work on open government municipal projects could join a program that would pay them to do just that? A program that would give a batch of cities a top tech team of developers, designers, and product managers for an entire year to build out their dream application that drives transparency and participation within the city and its government. And what if Philadelphia was in the running to get just such a team?

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Oakland-based Jennifer Pahlka, the executive director and co-founder of Code  for America, is about to find out.

How did Code for America come together?

Code for America started when a friend of mine who is the chief of staff for the Mayor of Tucson [Andrew Greenhill] asked me to help him bring a team of web 2.0 developers to Tucson to build web apps that could save the city money and start moving the city in a new direction.

Tucson is facing the same budget crisis that many cities are facing, and Andrew recognized that unless Tucson started bringing some of the innovations of the web to their way of governing, things were just going to get progressively worse. At the time, I was the chair of the Web 2.0 Expos and had been working on the new Gov 2.0 series of conferences with Tim O’Reilly, and had become inspired by both the potential of this new movement that Tim was articulating and the dedication and intelligence of many of the government employees I was meeting.  When Andrew and I saw each other last summer on vacation with our families, we talked about Teach for America, which Andrew had done straight out of college, and asked the question, ‘Why isn’t there a Teach for America for Web professionals?’

That was last July, and it took me until December to finish up my current work and dedicate myself to CFA full-time, but I was mentally committed to it from the time we asked that question. Tim O’Reilly was incredibly supportive, as was Ellen Miller and Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation, and Jean Case at the Case Foundation.  We got off to a strong start.

[The staff is small and includes volunteers helping out from across the country, including OurShelf co-founder and CEO Paul deGrandis, and board members the likes of which author and intellectual Clay Shirky.]

Below Pahlka talks about her role in the Gov 2.0 series and interests in open government through technology and using Code for America as a platform

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What cities first got involved? Was this the first application process?

Yes, it was the first cycle.  We announced it in January with a February due date — in order to get cities answers in April, in time for their budgeting — and 11 cities applied to the program for the first cycle.

They were: Hartford, CT, Boulder, CO, Boston, MA, Lansing, MI, Little Rock, AR, Philadelphia, PA, District of Columbia, Raleigh, NC, Chicago, IL, Seattle, WA and the Colorado Government Association of Information Technology on behalf of various cities in Colorado.

Any details on Philadelphia’s proposal, likelihood of benefiting, who applied or anything of that nature Philly-specific?

Philly is very likely to be one of the cities selected, but we haven’t announced our decisions yet, so it’s not official.

Open government by way of social media, applications, APIs and the like are very popular right now. Is it too much buzz for city governments that still have paper-based departments? Is this a way for real reform or are there more important priorities for city governments?

Paper-based departments in some ways will have it easier when they do tackle going online and taking an open approach, because they don’t generally have legacy systems — at least digital ones — to contend with.

Think about how much staff work can be saved by putting records online. Many Freedom of Information Act and other records requests will simply go away, some will simply be made easier.  But the real value is in how developers will use that data to create applications that will benefit citizens and the city both.

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Every Friday, Technically Philly brings you an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia�s technology community. See others�here.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a Cofounder, Chief Executive Officer and Publisher of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. 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 and curates a personal monthly newsletter of ideas and links here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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