Aaron Ogle: growing a family, a career and a better city in Philadelphia - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 10, 2011 11:00 am

Aaron Ogle: growing a family, a career and a better city in Philadelphia

The Code for America fellow and civic hacker talks about what brought him to Philadelphia and what will keep him here.

Aaron Ogle speaking during a Technically Philly interview with other Code for America fellows in February 2011. Photo by Nicholas Vadala.

Another in the Entrance Exam series, as part of the Why I Love Philly campaign from Young Involved Philadelphia and Indy Hall. Tell the world why you love where you live by tweeting #whyilovephilly.

Aaron Ogle says he’s committed to the idea that technology can change the world for the better.

While working at civic-friendly GIS firm Azavea, Ogle built Walkshed, which just might be the ultimate software tool for
Philly pedestrians. He decided to up the ante in 2011 and join the inaugural class of Code for America fellows.

As a part of the Code for America team, Ogle will spend this year dedicated to the cause of creating applications around Philadelphia’s open data. The goal of this effort is to make government more transparent and government services more accessible.

Having spent his childhood in small town Ohio, Ogle appreciates Philadelphia both for its urban escapes along the Wissahickon and for its thriving arts and tech scenes. While understanding that there are very real challenges in Philadelphia that need to be addressed, Ogle sees the potential for greatness.

Below, Ogle talks about what brought him to Philadelphia and what will keep him here.

Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?

I grew up in rural Ohio, a very small town, and I currently live in the Spring Garden neighborhood at 19th and Wallace [though as part of the CFA program, he is currently in San Francisco].

What brought you here? What was your route?

Before I was living in Philadelphia, I was living in Seattle and working at a telecommunications firm. My wife [Andrea] and I just had a baby. Her parents live in Wilmington, Delaware.

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About a year went by, and we decided we really wanted to be closer to our family. We wanted them to be able to come over and visit. I was really close to my grandparents when I was growing up. It’s one of those really special things.

I didn’t want to live in Wilmington. Philadelphia had a pretty bad reputation in my mind, but I started doing some research. The Google Maps API was still fairly recent at the time, so I was starting to play with that. I was playing with that all in my free time, and I thought: ‘I wish I could do this for my day job, that would be awesome.’

I was feeling particularly dissatisfied with my job one day, and came across this post for Avencia [now Azavea]. I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds perfect.’

It’s in Philadelphia. That’s when we pretty much decided this is where we want to be. So I filled out my application, sent it in, and the rest is history. Now, it’s three and a half years later and here I am.

“Kids can have an amazing education in the city — both by paying a gajillion dollars for school and also doing it for free. The thing that we are learning is you have to know the system.” -Aaron Ogle

Was there a specific event or moment when you decided you wanted to be within the city limits?

Like I said, I grew up in a very small town. I spent a semester abroad living in London, that’s when I realized that I really like big cities.

Since then it’s been this really strange dichotomy. I really like being in the middle of nowhere and I really like being in the middle of everything, but everything else in the middle is just kind of atrocious. And so, I was really getting into this idea of walkability. We lived in the city there, we walked everywhere there. We had a car but barely drove it.

So, we decided we wanted to be in the city. There’s downsides of living in Philadelphia, the wage tax being one of them. But I work in the city so I’d be paying that anyway.

When your children [son Asher is four years old, daughter Andrea is one] get a little bit older, are there any concerns about the school system?

Absolutely. It’s a difficult thing, but you can definitely do it. Kids can have an amazing education in the city — both by paying a gajillion dollars for school and also doing it for free. The thing that we are learning is you have to know the system.

It’s really hard to figure that out. You have to talk to people: What are the good public schools? What are the charters? What about private schools? Which are the good private schools for the money? Which neighborhoods do you have to live in? There’s just a lot to find out. That can be really daunting.

When someone visits from out of town, what are some of the places that you
show them?

Fairmount Park. Up to the west, the Wissahickon Creek area.

I remember the first time I walked up there, that I could not believe I was still in Philadelphia. Kind of like I said – loving to be in the middle of nowhere and loving to be in the middle of everything. That area, you just can’t believe you’re still in the city. It’s so gorgeous, the trees are so big, it’s quiet, the creek’s running, and it smells like the
woods. I just love it up there.

That and the Reading Terminal Market, where you’re in the middle of everything. Every time my mom comes up, she asks if we can go to that market again. It’s just amazing.

When you see friends from Seattle or Ohio, how do you describe Philadelphia to them?

From my perspective, Philadelphia has two faces.

There’s the really amazing part of Philadelphia – this really thriving city, great nightlife, great shopping, incredible art
scene, incredible tech scene. All of these things go on, but you also have a lot violence, a lot of poverty. All of these things go on.

One of the things that I realized when I moved here from Seattle is that in Seattle the issues you think about are way different than the issues you think about in Philadelphia.

You come to Philadelphia, and it’s much easier to see the problems around you. In Seattle, it feels like they’re more concerned about environmental issues and things like that because they don’t have a huge violence problem, it’s a very affluent city. It’s just a different set of problems.

Here, you’re face-to-face with it more. Honestly, I felt like that was a good thing. In Seattle, I felt like I was too far removed from a lot of those real problems. Here it’s harder to hide from it. People need to be aware of how the world is. You have to see and understand the problems if you’re going to address them.

In a tweet (or a sentence), why do you love Philly?

I love Philly because you can get anywhere without a car. It’s an awesome walking city.

Also: There are problems, and they’re out in the open. But once you spend time here and get to know it, it really grows on you. I think it’s wonderful.

People: Aaron Ogle
Projects: #whyilovephilly
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