Monthly Archives: June 2015

Code For America: Coding A Better Government

Code for America was founded in 2009, with the goal of building open source technology and organizing a network of people dedicated to making government services simple, effective, and easy to use. Code for America connects programmers and local governments through one of five programs. The five programs – the Fellowship, the Brigade, the Peer Network, the Civic Startups program, and their International activities – have produced a large number of civic technology projects.

Code for America’s fellowship program has been compared to the Peace Corps or Teach for America. The Fellowship program sends teams of experienced technologists into local governments across the country to work full-time for a year in partnership with government officials. Fellows work on projects that focus on health, economic development, safety & justice, and citizen-government interaction. Examples of their work include:

  • Civic Insight (formerly BlightStatus) offers residents up-to-date information on the status of underutilized properties in their community.
  • Prepared.ly offers a simple interface for emergency preparedness with checklists and facts in order to help residents protect themselves against natural disasters.
  • TextMyBus provides a simple text messaging service to relay real time transit information to riders.
  • To The Trails is a responsive web application that helps citizens find information on any trail regardless of jurisdiction or the device they use.

Founder Jennifer Pahlka showcases her ideas in an inspirational TED talk about technology in government and discusses the impact of some of the fellows projects. During one section of her talk Ms. Pahlka says “It suggests how government could work better — not more like a private company, as many people think it should. And not even like a tech company, but more like the Internet itself. And that means permissionless, it means open, it means generative.”

Another aspect of the Code for America programs are Brigades which are volunteer groups that collaborate with local government and community partners to build new tools that help with local civic issues. Code for America supports Brigade chapters with resources, tools, and access to the wider civic technology movement. Code for America believes that government can work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century.

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By You City: Houston’s Online Home for Civic Engagement

Houston is often referred to the Bayou City, due largely in part to the 19 streams that run throughout the city and the Houston Ship Channel. Houston is on a tremendous growth trajectory, with 26% growth since 2000; it is the fourth largest city in the U.S. and spans more than 655 square miles. Houston is also considered the most diverse city in the U.S., with more than 90 languages spoken, a hispanic population that will soon become the majority, and a vibrant immigrant community. Because the face of Houston has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, it is all the more important and challenging to effectively engage the large population, which is expected to grow by another million in the next 20 years.

In an effort to engage the Bayou City’s fast growing population for feedback, the City of Houston launched the yearlong project “designed to create a visionary roadmap to accommodate monumental growth.” The site will be used a “a touch point to the community for feedback, opinions, and guidance.” The information on the platform largely centers around arts and culture, neighborhood enhancement, and parks and recreation and is hosted by mindmixer.com.

The platform is divided into three areas: topics, activity, and about. The “leaders” on the platform posing questions are those in local government: from the city planning office, the arts and culture chair, and mayor’s assistant for cultural affairs. The leaders pose questions on the platform such as: “What would encourage you to participate in more arts and culture activities than you do now?” “If you were in charge, what would you change about the arts and culture plan in Houston?” and “What is your favorite event in Houston?”

Users can do several things through the site, such as:

  • Answer surveys
  • Answer polls
  • Provide feedback
  • Create budgets
  • Interact with decision makers
  • Add an idea
  • Pin a map

The site incentivizes user engagement through the rewards store, where users get points for how often they post and for even joining the site. Points can be redeemed in the rewards store for items such as tickets to a baseball game,

Users earn points by posting on the site that can be used back in the reward store for things like tickets to a baseball game. According to the site, it’s had 7,865 visitors since it’s creation less than a year ago. The number is not bad, but when you consider that Houston has 2.3 million residents, it’s a rather small drop in the bucket.

With a new mayor on the way in November 2015, there are significant ways that the city can bolster it’s online presence, seeking to engage the large community in more meaningful and substantive ways.

The platform can be found here: http://feedback.houstontx.gov/