Code for America (CFA) is an organization that seeks to help city governments become more efficient and Oakland stands to benefit from this new approach
The organization recruits talented programmers from companies like Google, Microsoft and others to team up for a year and volunteer their time to improving how government works. They are supported by organizations such as the Knight Foundation, Google and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Jennifer Pahlka, an Oakland resident, is the founder of CFA and believes that government needs to learn the art of becoming more agile and adapt quickly to changing demands on a reduced budget. And while the online applications often save millions of dollars for cities, Pahlka is equally excited about demonstrating that government can also be a platform that citizens can engage and build on.
“The overly complex, overly expensive way of doing things is no longer acceptable in this fiscal environment,” said Pahlka. But even more importantly, she says, “It’s not about the cost savings on that one product or project. It’s about political will for a new way of doing things.”
For example, Pahlka said their team worked in New Orleans where anyone who wanted to get a status of a blighted house in the city would normally have to sift through many forums and websites only to receive a partial explanation of the state of the property.
“As a citizen you could not tell if the property has been infected if a hearing has been held about it, if it had been determined to be knocked down; it’s completely opaque to you,” she said.
As a result many houses were left in abandon.
Pahlka said city officials expected CFA fellows to spend at least a year building an app that could aggregate information for blighted houses. After all, the City had worked for years and spent millions trying to come up with an online method to fix the problem.
Yet, two programmers designed a “functional product that showed a complete view of every address in New Orleans and its blight status within 8 weeks,” said Pahlka.
Pahlka said Oakland is also a good example of a city government seeking to be more efficient.
The city is a candidate for 2013 Code For America Fellowship and the Assistant to the City Administrator, Karen Boyd, said the city approved $180,000, on June 28, to help pay for the $360,000 Code for America Fellowship fee. Boyd said the rest of the funds would be fundraised through the community.
The City of Oakland deals with an “enormous volume” of public records requests, according to Boyd. As a result City officials suggested that one project include streamlining access to public records.
“By pursuing this open data policy and putting more and more of our data out in the public sphere,” Boyd said, “It increases transparency and accountability.”
When asked for an example of an app to streamline the City of Oakland’s public records, Pahlka said she would not speculate on how programmers would tackle the challenge. However, she said there are possibilities of creating a system where regularly requested documents can be made easily accessible online.
“Its not as hard as it used to be to make public records available digitally and that’s a lot of what we do is we just sort of take the consumer level technologies that are cheap that have gotten really powerful and apply them in government in such a way that the cost structure is so much smaller,” she said.
Boyd is excited about the possibilities of bringing on “techies” to solve government issues and said that CFA brings new hope to cities in a time when governments have struggled to adapt to the latest technology.
“[CFA has] an incredible passion for innovation and for government and those are two things that don’t always go together. This an incredible opportunity to bridge that digital divide,” she said.