The developer behind a new text messaging service aimed at reducing 311 call volume was a Division II All American gymnast in 1990. That gives him his balance.
- Text an address, like “1515 Market Street, Philadelphia” to (267) 293-9385
- Include one of these initial hashtags: #fire_stations #schools or #libraries
- Receive a location.
Phind it for Me is a new service based on an open source project [GitHub] that launched public beta in Philadelphia this week from Mark Headd, a ‘developer evangelist’ for the Voxeo Labs development arm of a national VoIP carrier.
Users send a simple text message from any SMS-enabled mobile phone with an address and a hashtag to find the closest location of a specific type of service, like a library, a school or a fire station, with plans for polling places and farmers markets in the coming days and more services in the future.
Phind It is based on Headd’s work during a Code for America DataCamp on the PHLAPI, which makes service locations more actionable.
“More people are getting smart phones, but they still aren’t nearly as available as cell phones with a basic text messaging service, which you can find around the world,” Headd, 42, said during the BarCamp NewsInnovation Open Gov Hackathon he helped organize. “This service could really give new people access to valuable information.”
A single 311 call costs the city $3.30, Code for America fellow Pete Fecteau said during the CFA DataCamp, so a tool like this that could cut down on simple requests, like the location of nearby services, could be seen as a city cost saver, though getting the word out remains a major difficulty.
After he builds out the service, which will include other services and directions, Headd says he hopes the project could be used in other cities. The application is built with Node.js, a hosted instance of CouchDB, in addition to PHLAPI and a new service from Voxeo that is currently in free trial, Headd said.
In his day job, Headd connects with developers on using various platforms from Voxeo, work that lends itself to being involved in hackathons, meetups and other collaborative work. Though Phind It is a side project of his, the relevance to his work is there, and that’s something Headd says he appreciates.
Headd lives in Wilmington, Del. with his wife and two kids — “Really cuts in on my hacking time too,” he jokes — so being able to juggle his interests and responsibilities is of paramount importance. That’s where the gymnastics comes in.
He is a 1991 political science graduate of tiny Cortland State University, where he had a successful gymnastics career, highlighted by being a 1990 Division II All American in floor exercise.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said.
He finished in 1994 is master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University, near where he grew up, and went on to two different stints in state government, where he first started teaching himself to code.
“I wanted to advance some new ideas inside of government, and found that the best way to do that was to bring people a working prototype of something,” he said.
Through to 1997, he was a budget analyst for New York state Sen. John DeFrancisco, when he then served as technology adviser and IT lead for then Delaware Gov. Tom Carper, now a U.S. Senator, until 2003.
While in working for Carper, he taught himself IVR coding and built the first prototype of a tool that helped people in Delaware find libraries.
“Libraries are ultra important community resources,” Headd said, noting that tool’s similarity to Phind It for Me. “This has been a passion of mine for a while.”
After state government, he bounced around the private sector, including in the call center industry with Horsham-based TelerX and a voice response technology firm. All along, Headd says he was finding his skills as a coder were growing nearly as quickly as his interest in its application for improving government.
In fall 2010, he took the evangelist gig with Voxeo.
“I had been doing a lot of work with their platforms and solutions and just decided I wanted to help make them,” he said. “Plus, they have a real commitment to open standards and open source that I like.”
It’s this job, Headd says, that is allowing him to work with smart people on making tools for residents to interface with City Hall more easily.
“In some ways, its easier to affect change in government from the outside,” Headd said. “So here I am.”