Coding for a Cause

Posted on Tuesday, April 9 2013 by Heather Brandon

I ran across an interesting article in Time magazine (sorry, non-subscribers) about Code for America, an effort to harness young people with a programming or technical background into government service. It’s been called a “Peace Corps for geeks,” and is a year-long program in partnership with municipalities.

CFA is currently seeking municipalities to apply for 2014.

Mother Jones profiled CFA’s Jen Pahlka last year:

MJ: Why cities?

Jen Pahlka: You can care about your city in a way that’s hard to care about the bigger levels of government. And cities everywhere are going through this enormous financial crisis. People are noticing the potholes, the parks where weeds have started to take over, less police on the streets. It’s in your face, and this crisis is creating the political will to push through new approaches.

MJ: Is it tough convincing city hall to let a bunch of young hackers move in?

JP: We’ve been more welcome than a lot of people expected. People working in our city governments are hungry for ways to do their jobs better that get around some of the crippling rules and procedures.

One of the outcomes of the CFA fellowship program is BlightStatus, based in New Orleans, created by a team called Civic Industries. The online tool accomplishes a lot of pretty great stuff, providing current information about individual troubled properties. You can even “subscribe” to certain properties so you stay updated about how they’re doing. The two-way-street nature of the tool is good for cities and citizens alike. Several other online tools 
have come out of the CFA crucible.

While online life can’t solve all the problems we experience in the real world, these tools are promising, especially during a time when city budgets are tight. What CFA appears to be offering is a kind of brain trust to connect problems and data with people who might bring a fresh approach to solutions. The year-long focus may be enough to jumpstart a lot of great new work in the cities that benefit.

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