Code for America summit considers what’s next in government

communities / Article

Clay Shirky keynotes the 2013 Code for America Summit

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Code for America would send 14 fellows to various cities across the United States and Puerto Rico in 2014. The correct number is 31 fellows.  

SAN FRANCISCO -- In his opening keynote for the annual Code for America Summit, Clay Shirky said, “When you look at the groups that made things work, it isn’t what they did first that mattered; it was what they did next.” If any group can appreciate Shirky’s emphasis on iteration and looking forward, Code for America can.

In just four years, Code for America, which Knight Foundation supports,  has grown from a scrappy “peace corps for geeks” to a driving force behind government innovation by working mostly on small, sustainable projects at the local level. Code for America connects technologists with governments leaders to help cities move toward more openness and efficiency. Its annual summit on Oct. 15-17 put the latest civic tech efforts center stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Much of the summit showcased the work in Code for America’s fellows program, which dispatches developers, designers and entrepreneurs to work with local governments for a year. The immediate results of fellowships are usually Web apps that resolve specific community problems and opened datasets, but their long-term impacts may be the most significant. The projects improve civic engagement and help cities provide more transparency and better technology policy. In 2014, Code for America will dispatch 31 fellows to Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Denver;  Lexington, Ky.;  Long Beach, Calif.; Mesa, Ariz.; San Antonio; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Rhode Island.

In addition to the fellows, Code for America supports volunteer civic hacker brigades in 51 cities around the country. Brigades deepen the prospects of civic technology in cities with local knowledge and prolonged engagement.

Our local brigade, Code for Miami, has deployed several apps, launched its website in English and Spanish, and is taking on new projects to advocate for transparency and open data. The brigade is beginning to develop apps and plan visualizations for 311 data, Miami-Dade County´s first open dataset with an API. We’re also working on reformatting the county code into a free, open-source platform that empowers residents to discover, access and use local laws more easily. We are testing a TextMyBus app that provides bus arrival times via SMS, and we’re building to be a more robust source of local knowledge about our city. (Our next MiamiWiki write-a-thon is Nov. 2 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at FIU’s Biscayne Bay campus library.)

Brigades are spreading rapidly in nearly every state. In South Florida for example, we launched Code for Miami in June, and Code for Fort Lauderdale and Code for Boca have emerged in the past two months. When possible, Code for America is establishing regional leadership to support these geographic clusters of brigades. Already, Triangle Code for America, Code for Hampton Roads and Code for Maine have been successfully managing interests in proximate cities.

And, Code for America’s work no longer stops at the border. The new Code for All program is expanding Code for America’s mission internationally. Code for D.F. in Mexico City, Code for the Caribbean, Code for Germany, Code for Poland, Code for Ireland and Code for Japan are among the first international partners.

As brigades and fellows build and deploy Web apps for cities, they also advocate for local open data policy. Their work is paying off in open data portals and commitments to tech-forward transparency. Summit attendees applauded when Louisville, Ky., and Oakland, Calif.,  passed open data resolutions during the event. Several brigade cities, including Miami, have also launched surveys to determine the positions of local candidates on open data and to begin exploring community open data needs.

New open datasets are igniting civic entrepreneurship. Code for America’s incubator and accelerator programs are helping to launch apps, tools and platforms that leverage civic data. Attendees saw presentations on those products and had a chance for hands-on demos as well.

New initiatives and products also debuted,  including Github’s new government organization and “Beyond Transparency,” a Code for America book on civic data and innovation. “Beyond Transparency” features insight on the future of the open government movement from John Bracken, Knight’s director of media innovation, who writes, “For open government to succeed, it needs to make its principles—transparency, openness, and data-driven decision-making—become synonymous with democracy.”

As Code for America’s network of fellows, volunteers, officials and entrepreneurs chips away at complex civic issues, including transparency, crime, housing, permitting and delivery of social services, they are fundamentally redefining government by continually asking, “What’s next?”

Rebekah Monson, an editor at the University of Miami,  is co-captain of the Code for Miami Code for America brigade.

Videos of the summit are available on Code for America’s YouTube channel. A live blog is also available on ScribbleLive.

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