If some of the nation's sharpest young minds spent a year working together to find a technological answer to a real and specific problem facing San Antonio, what might be accomplished? Thanks to Code for America, the 80/20 Foundation and the City, we’ll soon find out.
Last night on the 11th floor of the Weston Centre, the collaborative co-working space Geekdom played host the kick off reception of Code for America’s fellowship program in San Antonio. Code for America (CfA) is a national nonprofit that fosters civic technological innovation by partnering with local governments and organizations to create new tools and solutions to age-old problems.
The arrival of the program in San Antonio means citizens will be given easy-to-use web-based interfaces to access government records and information if the CfA team is successful with partnering with city officials to design and build user-friendly tools. Public access to the vast databases maintained by the city would be a major advance in transparency on the part of local government. Code for America believes such enhanced public access will help build more trusting and productive relationships between taxpayers and public servants.
The fellowship program places small teams of service-minded developers, designers and product managers in cities across the nation. The three-person CfA team assigned to San Antonio will work for 11 months, collaborating with local governments and residents both here in town and back at their headquarters in San Francisco, to build an app that tackles a local problem.
In the past, CfA fellows have improved access to social services, proposed alternatives to incarceration and designed new avenues for public input.
“It’s undeniable that our city is a city on the rise,” said District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal at the beginning of last night’s reception. The uptick in organizations and endeavors that focus knowledge and energy in the city, such as Geekdom, he said, indicates a positive trend for future growth and increased brain gain. “This is not us trying to be someone else,” he added; “we’re trying to be the best version of ourselves.”
Speaking to the three CfA fellows in the room, Bernal concluded: “There’s an opportunity here to contribute and make this place the best version of itself that it can be. I really believe in my heart that you guys are really going to help us accelerate that process.
So who are these fellows? Thirty participants spread over ten locations (eight US cities, Rhode Island, and San Juan, Puerto Rico) comprise the 2014 fellowship class.
Software engineer Amy Mok has a “passion for space and social impact.” A graduate of both UC Berkeley (BA computer science) and Carnegie Mellon University (MS software engineering), she most recently worked with Lockheed Martin and hails from San Francisco.
“Our team will go into the community and we’ll go into city hall and we’ll listen and learn,” she said, “and we’ll solve problems together.”
David Leonard, a southern California native, is a project manager and designer. He shared the basic question CfA fellows ask: “How do we create the easiest experience for people to interact with their government?” The answer to that query gets at the root of the CfA mission. “The key really is making people feel like they’re part of the system and they own the system, not just that they’re on the outside looking in.”
As an example, Leonard described how in 2012, fellows in New Orleans created an app called “Blight Status” that accomplished this mission by allowing regular citizens to become an easy but integral part of the process of identifying (and eventually rehabilitating) blighted properties.
Web designer and developer Maya Benari of Los Angeles works to make a positive impact ton the world by creating beautiful and functional online spaces. “The way people interact with each other has changed,” she said. “The way government interacts with their citizens is still evolving. We want to help you, the government and the people of San Antonio, to work better together.”
Hugh Miller, chief technology officer of the City of San Antonio, explained that the fellows had their first meeting with city staff and leadership and hinted at two potential projects they could explore: an application that allows users to see what city services are available to a specific address or a volunteer management system that allows citizens who want to volunteer to view available opportunities.
In conjunction with the City, the 80/20 Foundation, established by Rackspace Hosting co-founder and chairman Graham Weston, provided support for San Antonio’s participation in CfA. Weston and 80/20 Foundation executive director Lorenzo Gomez both gave remarks at the reception.
A major proponent of entrepreneurship and innovation in San Antonio, Weston described how code affects every aspect of our lives, using the pizza delivery business as an example. Ten years ago, he said, Domino’s Pizza had to orchestrate delivery drivers, make pizzas and that was about it. Today, over half of the orders they receive come in through a mobile app.
“This city is changing into what we want to make it into,” Weston said. “We’re becoming a city that you personally influence the future of, and that’s really exciting. … It is an honor to have Code for America here because code is going to change our city, just like code changed Domino’s Pizza. I think the more citizens who understand that, the closer [they are to understanding] how the world is going to change in the future.”
Weston then introduced Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media and widely considered the “top publisher of geek learning materials in the world.” In O’Reilly’s words, “We’re mostly a company concerned with finding interesting people and then taking what they’ve learned and spreading it to other people.” He emphasized how Code for America’s focuses on helping people more than creating technology by first understanding user needs and then solving problems.
O’Reilly described a conversation he had with CfA Jennifer Pahlka, who commented on the amount of distrust some people feel toward government. He relayed the question Pahlka then asked him: “What if people felt about government the way they feel about their iPhone?” A transformative user experience, he said, one that is seamless, attractive and approachable, is what the CfA fellows are aiming to create for San Antonio.
Mok, Leonard and Benari will spend the next four weeks here in San Antonio, working with city staff and the community to identify challenges and needs before returning to the San Francisco CfA office with the other nine fellowship teams. “What’s really unique about this program is that our job isn’t to consult or to come in and fix an assigned problem,” Leonard told the Rivard Report. “Our job is to work with the community and figure out what they need.”
The fellows welcome feedback on issues facing San Antonio. Email your input to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want more? Watch CfA founder Jennifer Pahlka’s 2012 TED talk, in which she describes how citizenship and technology interact and how the internet has the ability to “fundamentally [reshape] the way government can work.”
Miriam Sitz is a freelance writer in San Antonio. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz and click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.