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Rivard Report: You and your Code for America colleagues have been quietly living and working in San Antonio for some months now. Let’s start by telling readers about Code for America. Is it a domestic version of the Peace Corps for programmers?
Maya Benari: Code for America is a national non-profit that helps residents and governments harness technology to address community problems. We believe that government can work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century.
I’m part of the Fellowship program that’s sometimes affectionately called the peace corps for geeks. The Fellowship is a service-year where civic-minded developers, designers, and product managers create small startup teams and partner with a local government for a year-long collaboration. Fellows and government staff work together to build apps, foster new approaches to problem solving throughout City Hall, and tackle issues the community is facing.
My team spent February in San Antonio doing research and talking to the community. The rest of the time, we’re are based out of San Francisco, though we travel fairly often back to San Antonio throughout the year.
RR: So what brought you to SA?
MB: San Antonio applied and was selected, along with nine other local governments, to be a 2014 Code for America partner. Since the beginning of the year, my teammates Amy Mok, David Leonard and I have been working with city officials and the community to use technology to help solve community problems and help the city’s tech be more citizen-focused. On a personal level, I heard good things were happening in San Antonio and needed to see it for myself. Also, when I was younger, I rode horses (western style and, yes, I wore chaps and a cowboy hat) and that may have helped get me here.
RR: Tell us about Homebase, the proprietary product you are developing for the City of San Antonio. Is it an app or a website or something embedded in the City’s website? What does it do?
MB: Homebase lets you apply for the permits you need to improve your home (with ability to get grants and labor coming in the future). It’s a website application that we’ve been developing and all of our code is online so others can contribute to the project or build their own version at github.com.
After speaking with homeowners who face significant challenges when improving their home, we felt there was a need to build a resource that’s easy to access, navigate, and understand. We made a simple step-by-step guide using plain language and cleaner, more intuitive design to help San Antonians get started improving their homes. The work of fixing up your house is hard enough without struggling through a complicated government form, getting your permit to do your work legally should be easy to do.
Bad government forms creates a divide between government and citizens. When forms are poorly designed and written in legalese, you can’t understand what you’re reading and you end up feeling frustrated or disempowered. So you either won’t want to complete the form at all, do something wrong and feel bad, or blindly accept the default options without exploring other choices that may be a better fit. Understanding that these forms can be better is one key to how local governments can better serve their citizens. It means they have less translating to do (which will save them hours and money), less frustrated constituents, and it opens up a channel of communication between residents and government. These simple improvements can help people feel like empowered members of the city they live in.
RR: We know that Homebase is in the testing phase. Are you read to share it with our readers and let them have a test drive?
MB: Yes, we need your help. We’d love to hear your thoughts and get your feedback. Fill out this form to connect with us.
We look forward to hearing what you think and will make changes it based on your feedback. Check out the site here.
RR: Homebase is meant to solve a problem or better connect citizens with local government, right? Will this really make the process of applying for a permit or seeking approval for a project any easier, or will it still come down to dealing face-to-face with bureaucrats?
MB: For somebody who wants to fix up their house, permits can be scary. They don’t have to be. When people understand the rules about home repair, they can make informed decisions.
Right now, if you want to get a permit, that means taking time off work, driving to Development Services Department, waiting in a long line, and having staff explain it to you. It’s scary because you wonder, what if it’s not approved? Will it take long to do? How much money will this cost me? And some will go ahead and make renovations without a permit. What if you can do it from the comfort from your own home or on your phone and email it to them so they can approve it? The staff at Development Services Department do a great job already, we want to help them too.
RR: How did you or City officials decide there was a pressing need for Homebase instead of, say, a pressing need for an app that addresses SA2020 challenges, like our obesity problem, or an app that lets you access a complete portfolio of city services?
MB: Neighborhoods is a focus area of SA2020 and we kept that in mind when choosing what issue to work on. When we got here, our team was tasked with the broad goal to improve civic engagement in San Antonio. We spent the month of February embedded in the city, talking with city officials, residents, and community leaders to try to understand the landscape of the city, the problems people are facing, and where we could create something successful and beneficial in a year.
Regarding choosing an app to address obesity, San Antonio is making great strides with a culture of outdoor recreation with Mission Reach and physical activity with B-cycle and the Million Pound Challenge, and we are cheering you on. The city actually already has a 311 app that residents can use to access city services.
RR: How does San Antonio stack up against other cities in terms of its digital infrastructure, including City staff who “get it” and are working to make us a more digitally connected city?
MB: We’ve partnered with the City’s IT department and it’s very lucky to be led by Hugh Miller, chief technology officer. When Hugh came in to San Antonio, he transformed the city’s digital infrastructure to use completely modern, high-quality servers. The department is in the midst of massive overhaul of its software development and purchasing process.
They’re continuing to charge forward with being instrumental in bringing Google Fiber to the city. They put kiosks in supermarkets that lets people talk to a judge and pay for tickets. How cool is that. Seriously, San Antonio is the first city in the U.S. to do this. Or Judge Nelson Wolff who is paving the way with BiblioTech, the first all-digital library in the U.S., which operates in underserved neighborhoods that don’t have traditional libraries. You guys are blazing a trail.
RR: We think the City has good leadership, but we are not impressed with its website or its social media outreach. Shouldn’t Code for America’s team here address the broader issues about making local government easier to access and navigate?
MB: Code for America is working on a larger project on what it means to have a city website in the digital age with the Digital Front Door project, which they are piloting with Oakland and San Diego. Cyd Harrell, Code for America’s UX Evangelist often says, “City government websites are usually about the City, but they should be the City, doing the people’s business online.”
With our project, however, we wanted to show what’s possible when the government builds its digital services using effective methods from the private sector, like user-centered design and agile methods. So we are training a team of people in the city on these processes so they can take it with them and use when we leave.
RR: You guys are smart. What do you think of the Google vs. AT&T proposals to bring faster Internet connectivity to San Antonio? We live in a city with a lot of people who can’t afford digital tools like tablets and smart phone and can’t afford hi-speed Internet. Do you have any insights to share on that subject, or suggestions of other cities to study?
MB: We’re excited that residents will have the possibility to access high speed internet. Any competition between the two companies is good for the end-user. Google and AT&T will have to provide better services and cheaper prices to attract customers. Most people these days do have smart phones: 90% of people in the U.S. have a cellphone and 60% have a smartphone. (It’s great that you can stop by the BiblioTech now and check out a tablet for free).
We’re still going to have people using slow connections and older devices and they also need to access city services. Makers on the web need to build for these users as a first priority and then give enhanced experiences for those with better devices and faster connections. A past Code for America project, Promptly, sent text messages to users of food stamps before their balanced expired, so there are ways to create access to services without blazing fast internet.
RR: On the personal front, where have all of you been living in SA? Tell us what you like or dislike about urban life and work in the city.
MB: We spent February living in Southtown and absolutely loved it. We were in an old officer’s quarters in King William that was converted to a condo and it was very cool. The price it costs for me to live in a tiny room in San Francisco, I could have a palace in San Antonio. We love the farmer’s market at the Pearl, hanging at Blue Star, nights in the Friendly Spot with the Spurs game on, and great Mexican food everywhere. Everything was very central for us, we spent most of our time at ITSD and Geekdom. Getting around to different parts of the city would not have been possible without a car or Lyft/Uber, so there could be room for improvement with public transportation.
RR: What’s the best revelation about our city that you were not expecting or didn’t know about before coming here?
MB: One revelation I had was about the size of the city. It feels right-sized, big enough that it feels like an urban city and small enough that I can run into new friends and move around pretty easily.
The weather was super crazy too. When we first got here in February it was ice-cold, a few days later it turned blistering hot.
Also, puffy tortillas. We don’t have those in California.
RR: What have you found most disappointing about the city.
MB: The heat in the summer.
RR: True or False? San Antonio is a City on the Rise.
RR: Why do you say so?
MB: It’s an exciting time for the city. You are building new businesses and a strong community. All the growth and momentum happening here is going to make San Antonio an even greater city in the coming years.
RR: What are you favorite restaurants? How about bars?
MB: Tito’s hands down. We lived next door to it during February and there may have been a day I was at Tito’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Mixed fajita plate is my go-to dish. We’re also fans of Feast, Luke, Rudy’s and Bill Miller BBQ. For bars, we liked Friendly Spot, Brooklynite, and Esquire Tavern.
RR: Tell the truth: have you visited the Alamo? How about the other colonial missions?
MB: We’ve driven past it many times but I haven’t officially paid a visit. However, we have visited Mission San Juan Capistrano. Hope that doesn’t spoil our street cred.
RR: Have you cycled down the Mission Reach?
MB: Yes, I have. David, Scott Meltzer (Deputy Director of 80/20 Foundation), and I jumped on San Antonio B-Cycle bikes at Blue Star Arts Complex and cycled down the beautiful Mission Reach all the way down to Mission San Juan.
RR: How long will the Code for America team be in San Antonio? Have any of you fallen in love since arriving? Have any of you called home to announce you are moving here for good?
MB: Yes, I’ve fallen in love, not with a special someone, but with the city itself – the warmth of the people, the unique culture, all the amazing things happening here, and Los Spurs of course. We even created a city love note website “I love San Antonio” where 200 San Antonians have told us why they love the city. Tell us yours.
We will be working with the city through the end of November and back for an official launch of our project then. San Antonio has become a special place for us, a great place to live with great opportunities. We look forward to visiting much more.
RR: The Code for America national summit will be held next month in San Francisco. Tell us about that event, how many people will be there, and will your San Antonio project be on the agenda? More importantly, what do we need to do to convince CfA to stage a national summit in San Antonio?
MB: The annual Summit is when the Code for America civic innovation community gathers in person for three days of collaborating, connecting, and learning. It will have about 750 people there. Yes, we will be presenting our work on stage and demoing it on the ground. Since we are based out of SF it’s likely we’ll be keeping it there. We’ve held other events in San Antonio like the National Day of Civic Hacking with the San Antonio Brigade and CodeAcross. The Summit will be livestreamed so you can watch it online.
RR: Okay, thanks for coming to our city and helping make it better.
MB: It’s been our pleasure. Thank you.
*Featured/top image: Code for America Fellow Maya Benari during the CodeAcross input meeting at Rackspace. Photo by Kara Gomez/Open Book Studios.