Here is another in my series on SXSW events. I am pleased to be attending SXSW for the first time. I am grateful for Adobe Acrobat for enabling me to attend. I did some of the Adobe sponsored sessions. As I do with other events I will be posting my notes from most of the sessions I attend. This is the keynote session "Coding the Next Chapter of American History" by Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. Here is the session description.
“Challenging the tech community to change the world for the better is a big part of the core mission of SXSW Interactive. Code for America works with talented web professionals and cities around the country to promote public service and reboot government. Before starting Code for America, Pahlka spent eight years at CMP Media where she led the Game Group, responsible for GDC, Game Developer magazine, and Gamasutra.com; there she also launched the Independent Games Festival and served as executive director of the International Game Developers Association. Recently, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb and co-chaired the successful Web 2.0 Expo. She is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Oakland, CA with her daughter and five chickens.”
Jennifer Pahlka began by saying it used to be six chickens. She is excited about being here in the SXSW community. Her Dad went to grad school in Austin and she took her first steps here. My Dad did the same and I also took my first steps here. She is here to talk about government technology.
She started with a story about an excellerator to discuss how to support civic startups. They want to help people who have problems. But most startups are begun by 25 year old Stanford grads who do not have a lot of needs. But they do have a lot of issues with encountering government such as dealing with the pot holes and parking tickets. I can relate to this. Most government apps were built in the 80s and many are broken and cannot be fixed. But this inefficiency is mostly invisible.
Fed State and local gov spends $140 billion in technology. This is a huge market. My former large consulting employer did well with this market. But most people do not want to work with government technology. But this is changing. She gave examples including Boston where they have a pot holes detectors and my home town needs tem badly. Now if they would only fix them. Innovations are also happening on the neighborhood levels.
The will to do things in government is changing. They are trying to fix things rather than just complain. We have to engaging at lower levels of the system to be really effective.
Code for America was started two years ago. She has helped co-produce Enterprise 2.0 event. She convinced her boss, Tim O’Reilly, to start a government event. It was focused at the Federal level at first. A friend said that US cities are in a crisis and that is where the focus should be. People know more about what cities do. They can see it. A friend started Teach for America. So she started Code for America in the same manner to get people to help fix broken government IT. In January 2010 she asked cities to apply for this program. Thirteen cities applied for the program. They ended up with four contracts that could through procurement. Three cities carried forward. Boston, Seattle, and Philly. Glad to see my home town was involved. There were 6 people on the Boston team who passed around the same six ties everyday to meet the dress requirement.
So she got programmers to volunteer for a small stipend to help these cities. They had 352 people apply The second year 552 applied. In January 2011 they got started. They experimented a lot and measured what they did.
In the first year they produced 21 apps in the first year. She gave an example of two. In Boston parents were frustrated about the school selection process. There was 28 page printed brochure that was confusing. They built an app that provided what they needed and allowed for easy comparisons. They did it in two months. They were told if it was done in regular channels it would take two year and cost two million dollars. One fellow said he believed interfaces to government can be simply and elegant.
The second apps was also done in Boston. Snow plows cover fire hydrants. He started an “adopt a fire hydrant” program for people to shovel it out. It is spreading virally. This is interesting as in Boston we fight over shoveled out parking spaces. Other cities adopted some similar ideas to implement other things like clearing out blocked storm drains. This concept invites people to think about government differently. It needs government data but does not call on government services. It organizes people. Government is what we do together. It promotes government as about collective action. We are getting good at this at this through social media.
When government is open and usable by programmers good things happen. They did a one day exercise in Philly that accomplished a lot in one day when they had access to the data. Good government is now linked to digital. They had another hack event in cities and mayors showed up.
Technology is allowing us to rethink how we think about government, Boston has a 311 all center to raise issues with city. Their fellows spend a day on this call line to see how the government works, The people called for many issues, including having a possum stuck in a house. They were no guidelines. So he suggested open all the doors and turn up the music and the possum left.
Government can be a platform for citizens helping each other. This strengthens our communities without costing more money. But we have to expect different things about ourselves. We are not taxpayers and consumers but citizens who help fix things themselves.
She said seven ways to help. One is to go into government service as a developer. There are new jobs opening up with new attitudes. There are also places that need new attitudes. Now only 13% of local government employees are under 40. There is great opportunity to create a new culture as these older workers retire.
The second way is to apply for Code for America itself. Third way is build a civic startup. There is huge market here. It can be helpful and still make more money. Fourth way is to encourage your city to apply for Code for America. Fifth way is to make government data more valuable. Sign up for data visualizations, etc. Sixth way is join a Code for America Brigade as a part time volunteer like a volunteer fire brigade. If there is not one in your city, start one. The seventh way is to act like citizens, pull weeds, straighten garbage cans and pick up garbage. If we all did things like this, our cities would be a better place.
The consumer Web allows for connections. We need to build a citizen internet to help this country. You can serve your country with your technical skills. Only you can change government. I agree.