Code For America links enterprising programmers up with governments struggling to share their data. Photograph: codeforamerica.org
Ben Berkowitz woke up three years ago to find a huge graffiti tag scrawled across his neighbor’s wall, which he couldn’t avoid seeing through his back window.
“I was calling city hall to try to figure out what the policy was on graffiti removal on private property and it was really hard to get an answer. It was even harder to get it removed,” he said.
The more he poked around, the more he realized his experience was reflective of a broader problem.
“I was seeing this block in communication at the very local level when I started to look around on blogs. People were talking about potholes and similar municipal issues. The frustration was universal.”
But Berkowitz, a web designer, saw the problem as something he could potentially hack. A new breed of technologist increasingly interested in getting government to work more efficiently and transparently, Berkowitz co-created SeeClickFix, a location-based web platform allows residents to document neighborhood concerns and suggest improvements.
With SeeClickFix, users can report quality-of-life concerns - garbage collection, graffiti, potholes - through service requests, timestamped with photos and location.
Other residents, including the relevant city officials, will then receive an alert. The city can then acknowledge the service request, transfer it to the proper department, and update residents once it’s been resolved.
The partnership allows residents to not only report community issues, but also view, comment on and vote to prioritize problems submitted by their neighbors.
SeeClickFix, which is based in New Haven, Connecticut, is open, public, and applies pressure to get the most pressing jobs done. And it’s emblematic of a trend: Open311, for example, is a similar partnership between several municipalities and coders that lets people lodge, publicize and track non-emergency complaints.
“There is a new generation of civically engaged individuals who happen to also be technologists. Instead of just showing up at a city council meeting or voting, they’re using their skills to participate in the startup community to tackle longstanding problems in government,” Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media and chairman of NY TechMeetup, told the Guardian.
“The government is making more and more data available, and the technology we carry in our pockets is getting so powerful that citizens are starting to build technologies useful in their daily lives.”
‘There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage’
These citizens include people like Berkowitz and his partners at SeeClickFix, but also the folks at New York’s Big Apps, which offers cash and other prizes to software developers for the best new apps that use city-published data.
These are people like Anil Dash and Gina Trapani of Expert Labs, whose open source ThinkUp web app was designed for agencies to better analyze their mentions across social networking sites.
And these are people like Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, a San Francisco-based non-profit that aspires to do for technology what Teach for America does for education: help governments work better for everyone by throwing its data open to enterprising programmers.
Pahlka stresses that her generation of technologists are increasingly more interested in getting the government to function than they are in getting their guy elected.
“We grew up with the notion that you’re supposed to be politically active. But there’s a trend towards people who want to be bureaucratically active: in the layer that’s under the politics,” she told the Guardian.
“Young people are seeing the shouting match between the left and the right, and it’s a turnoff overall. There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage.”
Working with city managers, Code for America fellows identify projects that can benefit from web-based solutions.
For example, when the Boston public school system changed its rules for eligibility last year, parents became frustrated trying to figure out something as simple as which school their kids were supposed to attend. A 28-page document released by the city read like tax code and didn’t give parents a straightforward answer.
Code for America fellows viewed it as a straightforward mapping problem. With data made available by the city, they built the app discoverBPS.org, which asks parents for a set of data and calculates what school their kids are zoned for.
“If that had gone through normal government channels, it would have taken two years and cost $2m. We did it for basically nothing in two months,” said Pahlka.
“You start to see why there’s a lack of trust in government. Look at that simple and beautiful app and contrast it with a typical government website. We expect to be confused and frustrated by those government interfaces because they’re generally not well done and do not implement design and usability principles.”