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Code for America: We coded our way into this, now help us code our way out

By Dan Raile , written on October 5, 2015

From The Economics Desk

Around fifteen hundred city government employees and civic-minded technologists passed through the Downtown Oakland Marriott last week during the three-day Code for America Summit.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf gave a welcoming address, and sales pitch to civic hackers:

“Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panthers and the Hell’s Angels. We’ve got mad love for disrupters,” Schaaf said. “Oakland is the hottest place for urban innovation… this is not your daddy’s bureaucracy!”

And:

“Free the entrepreneurial bureaucrat!”

She also remarked on the recent announcement that Uber was moving its headquarters to Oakland.

“Now as a government… they did not ask for tax breaks, or special treatment or exceptions. So there is nothing I can force them to do. But you better believe I sent them a very explicit letter welcoming them, letting them know that I am here to help them become members of our community. And that some of our expectations about how they express that citizenship is about specific commitments around achieving equity, fighting displacement, supporting our local economy and also about being a good compassionate neighbor through environmental practices, hiring locals, charity work.”

There’s a building spree on in Oakland, with 14,000 residential units in the pipeline, the vast majority market-rate, and rents went up 9.1 percent last year, the largest jump in the country. The city’s black population is down by nearly a quarter since 2005.

Mayor Schaaf proposed the notion of “tequity” (“I’d love to see that trending at the end of the day, you’ll make my day if you hashtag that”) and made a stab at summing up the mission at hand at the Marriott.

“We need tech to drive equity to make up for the wrongs of the past. Let’s all be honest that government hasn’t always served people equally and now we have a new tool to make up for that and correct it.”

* * * *

Code for America has often been compared to the Peace Corps (for mid-career programmers and civics-minded entrepreneurs), and it is like that, except that it’s a private nonprofit organization. The lion’s share of its $11 million 2014 revenue came from foundation grants, the largest continuing foundation donors through it’s 5+ year run are Omidyar Network, Google.org, and the Knight Foundation. Microsoft was the “Capstone Supporter” of this year’s Summit. Esri provides in-kind GIS services, and Amazon Web Services hosts the hacks. Google for Entrepreneurs provides support for fellows. 

After corporations, foundations, and private tech individuals -- including Reid Hoffman and Tim O'Reilly (who married Code for America's Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka this year)-- the next largest source of Code For America’s funding comes from municipal governments, which pay to take part in its Fellowship program. Code for America raises $440,000 for each of the 20-30 fellows it deploys in yearlong assignments. This money comes from a combination of taxpayer and foundation sources. The fellows receive a $50k stipend and travel expenses -- “A big paycut for most of them,” one Code for America staffer told me.

None of that is any secret, of course, though the organization could stand to make its own financial disclosures more elegant and user-based.

As a rule, Code for America doesn’t involve itself with politics, but rather directly and unelectedly with the functioning of governments. The objectives are purely technological and technotopian -- creating open-source software for a more digital, participatory and transparent government, enhanced by user-centered design principles. ("We need to think of citizens as our users," one Code for America staffer exhorted from the main stage.)

This year the organization restricted its fellowship assignments to four focus areas: Safety and Justice; Economic Development; Health and Human Services; and Communications and Engagements. 

Think apps and data portals, smart forms, building communities of trust among government departments and the citizenry with hackathons. A lot of big ideas about making government data open and publicly available, carving digital shortcuts through odious bureaucracy. Slogging through implementation and iteration; dogged persistence in spreading the message until the last residual 20th-century mindset is washed away.  

“The goal is moving technologists into government,” said Nicole Neditch, Senior Director of Government Practices. “About forty of the 126 people that have gone through the program stay.”

Also sticking with the mission are graduates of Code for America's now-defunct accelerator and incubator program, several of whom were at the Summit representing their civictech startups and sniffing out leads for vendor contracts among the town and city administrators.

In addition to its fellowship program, the organization also supports a network of 3,500 volunteers in 160 local “brigades” across the United States and 20 other countries on six continents. In my interactions, the brigadiers proved to be the activist rump of the Code for America enterprise. Several volunteered to me their support for Edward Snowden, and mistrust of the federal agencies whose practices he revealed. They see themselves as fighting back, fighting the good fight. This more than anything reinforces the comparison to the Vietnam-era Peace Corps.

Starting last year, Code for America created the Code for All network, of which it is now just one Code node among many. Others include Code for Kenya, Code for Pakistan, Code for Poland, Code for Africa, Code for Brazil, and Code for Tomorrow (based in Tawian), Code for Japan.

Code for All doesn’t provide its financial data anywhere on its website, beyond “Sponsors/Funders: Google.org, Omidyar Network.” It offers resources such as Code for America toolkits for establishing fellowship and brigades programs, and statements of the principles of digital governance.

The Code-for network provides the messy Constitutional Convention to John Perry Barlow's "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" 

* * * *

The break-out sessions at the Code for America conference are its most interesting portion by far, inhabited by city-government CTOs and CIOs and Data Officers from over a hundred American towns and cities, absorbing the best practices and lessons-learned by their colleagues. There's no denying that municipal governments could be made more efficient with software (and will be, inevitably but slowly, with or without Code for America's accelerative activity). They can be made somewhat more accountable by publishing certain key data sets (even while retaining others behind the PDF wall -- thorny categories like campaign financing, lobbying expenditures, lotteries, energy and water consumption remain outside the mandate).

In the break-outs, participants get down to nuts and bolts. Most of the high-flown rhetoric gets left at the door. As municipal types showcase the incremental changes in government behavior enacted through their various technologic schemes. Challenges and failures are discussed frankly. Especially of interest this year were troubles arising from the recent headlong rush to outfit American police officers with body cameras -- the data they gather is massive and processing it exceeds municipal resources. Many questions remain to be answered before these devices can live up to their promise. Who has access to their data, and how can it be used and effectively processed, without recourse to the distopian slippery slope of layering in facial- and object-recognition software? 

In Louisville and Chattanooga and Indianapolis and Chicago, the “Practices for 21st Century Government” are slowly taking root, empowering bureaucrats one liberated PDF at a time. But there are hits and misses, and the final shape of a data-enhanced local government is still up for grabs.

Even in San Francisco the progress is halting, here where open-government and civic-tech became buzzwords nearly a decade ago, during the mayoralty of Gavin Newsom. Where Code for America was founded six years ago, and where all its fellows are trained and briefed for their mission. Many of San Francisco's early open government initiatives were left on the vine: openly published city data still has some department-sized holes, is irregularly published, and scattered around obscure portals and third party apps. 

But if you look closely, you can see the technology inching forward, digging in. The City’s first Chief Data Officer, Joy Bonaguro, gave an update on her first year in the job at a Summit session titled “You Published Some Data. So What?”

“We spent a lot of time reframing the data proposition internally for publishing open data, and we offer services to the departments. We’re not shaking a fist, or just saying “maybe someone will make an app with it,” she said. “I spent a lot of time building relationships in the past year, I fed a lot of people a lot of lunches.”

Bonaguro has done data audits of all 52 city departments and hopes to release her full evaluation soon. She’s appointed departmental data coordinators, and greatly expanded the city’s internal training programs, and regularly attended the meetings of the San Francisco “brigade.” She and her deputy Jason Lally discussed the promising practice of “strategic releases” or “data with context,” a way to combat the apathy that San Francisco’s initial data releases met with.  

“This allows us to explain complicated issues in a more robust way,” said Lally, “and tie policies and programs to data. What we call “enduring sources of truth” and “unbroken data lineages.””

“It’s about making the city operate better, telling the stories, so that we can make better decisions,” Bonaguro said.

Elsewhere in San Francisco data, the Chronicle reported last week that census data puts the median income of (the shrinking number of) black households in the city at $29.5k. Down 5% from 2011. For white households, $104.3k, a 14% increase. Asian and Latino/Hispanic both saw increases of about 30% since 2007, to $72k and $67k respectively, still notably below the white line. Mayor Ed Lee is running unopposed for reelection, endorsed by the Chronicle itself for his successful "leadership from behind."

We coded our way into this, and (with God on our side, as might once have been said) we’ll code our way out. The solution is out of the box, searching for a problem in search of a solution.

Down the Peninsula there’s a now a Four Seasons in East Palo Alto (the Four Seasons Silicon Valley at East Palo Alto) with rooms starting around $485 dollars a night. The median individual income in East Palo Alto is $18k. And now, CNET reports, the yuppies are moving in there too. Median household income in next door (original) Palo Alto is $122k.

In the heartland of the tech industry, free information, human centered design, permanent connectivity, social networks, et al, have not quite yet succeeded in bringing about a profound change toward greater equity, though it’s created great wealth.

That won’t stop Silicon Valley from exporting its techno-optimism, across the continent, across the globe, into even the highest levels of government.

Maybe the question is not whether this technology could make society, or citizenship, or local community better. But has it? Will it?

* * * *

The country’s highest ranking tech evangelist, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, made a stop at the Code for America Summit Wednesday afternoon, ahead of an appearance at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater as part of the City Arts and Lectures series, broadcast on NPR affiliates across the land.

Smith, a former Google product executive and entrepreneur, is perfectly cast as Silicon Valley’s ambassador to Washington and mainstream America. She talks fast and ends every thought on an upbeat note. Earnest, ebullient and slightly goofy, she invites listeners to share in her belief in a great notion: a better nation and a better world are just around the bend, if only the world's best technologists and most creative entrepreneurs will join together to debug our plagueing problems and scale for the future. 

She's the latest in a long line of Yankee can-do dandies.

"If we’re the country that can make Facebook and Amazon and Twitter, we need them to be in the government on tours of duty."

“There is military service and there is digital service,” Smith said. “That’s the new model.”

She regaled interviewer Sal Kahn with tales of the technological wonders of the emerging world: the Airbnb-of-refrigeration and the Uber-of-recycling in Africa; drones that monitor the health of vulnerable ecosystems, counting trees or tracking elephants; an MIT-designed floating modular fabrication lab on the remote Amazon...

Smith pursues her myriad government-improvement schemes through the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellowship, operated at the federal level along similar lines as the flagship Code for America program (and developed in part by Code for America founder and executive, and former Deputy CTO of the United States and tech conference organizer, Jennifer Pahlka).

“We need to go to places where we are very rare,” Smith appealed to the $30-per-ticket audience for her hourlong talk at the Nourse on Wednesday night, “We are recruiting top American for tours of duty. I hope you will do one.”

Smith and Pahlka aren't alone in chumming Silicon Valley for latent patriotism.

There’s also the General Services Administration’s 18F, according to its website a “civic consultancy for the government, inside the government, which recruits “top-notch designers, developers and product specialists” to develop digital services for government. And the recruitment drive of the new Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, who told a Mountain View audience in August:

"Ideally I'd like to see people moving back and forth. People come to Silicon Valley because they care and they want to have an impact on the world. We can provide them that. And I want our people to understand what is going on in Silicon Valley as well."

In the months ahead, a group called TechCongress is launching a Congressional Innovation Fellowship, where selected “Individuals with a background in technology, technical skills or currently working on technology law or tech public policy” will embark on a nine month tour as a Capitol Hill technological aide embedded with a Congress member or Committee to “change Congress by injecting desperately needed technological expertise into the Legislative Branch.” The Congressional fellows will receive a week of training at Capitol Hill, and another in Silicon Valley, where they will "visit with tech policy thought leaders at academic institutions, civil society groups and technology companies" to explore a "range of perspectives" on tech policy goals.

So many choices for the mid-career refugees of large tech companies, disaffected idealists sprung from the illusory world-changing blather of corporate cogdom, ready to take on the real problems facing America: income inequality, police profiling, the prison or education system, the Chinese hacker army, ISIL -- even if their best hope is only some plodding or infinitesimal change. After a year's service, they can always come back, their civic oats sown, burnout forestalled.

Take up thy STEM credential and social graph and walk through your favored recruitment portal. Do your innovative duty. Join a branded, loosely-federated brigade. Use the tools that the US Government developed for you (and the military) to develop tools for the US Government, and save us all.