Hi, thanks to everyone for coming out today. It’s totally awesome to see you all here. My name is Harlan Weber. I’m a professional interaction designer, and I work at a startup in Lexington. I’m here today to talk to you a bit about Code for America, Code for Boston, and civic hacktivism.
So when I said that I’m an interaction designer, that’s only halfway true. In actuality, I live kind of a dual-life.
By day, I work at a company of about 50 people called OnForce, located in Lexington, where I lead design and qualitative research efforts for the Product and Technology group, working closely with our engineering team as we build mobile and web products to support our on-demand labor management platform.
But by night, I also work as the organizer of a volunteer group of about 175 developers, designers, urban planners, researchers, and data geeks called Code for Boston. Code for Boston is the local chapter of a nationwide network of similar volunteer groups called Brigades, which are part of Code for America, a non-profit based in San Francisco aimed transforming government through the use of creative technology. This picture was actually taken at our very first meeting, at Involution Studios in Arlington.
My route to being involved with Code for America and leading this dual-life is a somewhat long and convoluted one. Early in my career, I worked for a few design firms that worked primarily on medical devices – mostly embedded screen interfaces – and I took a lot of emotional satisfaction out of that work. If I created a UI that helped a heart surgeon diagnose a hazardous condition 20 seconds earlier, that probably saves a couple hundred peoples’ lives a year. As I moved on to different companies, I started working on products that were more business focused, products that had less emotional resonance for me. The work was even more technically challenging and intellectually stimulating than the medical work, but it wasn’t really spiritually satisfying. So, I started looking around for a way that I could make a difference, but still use the skills I’d spent so many years developing. Luckily, I’m not the only one, and a chance encounter with a friend in the non-profit world put me in touch with the right people at the still-young Code for America, and here we are today.But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Before we get into the Brigade, Code for America, and the ways that we – and others – are trying to change the face of government, we need to talk a little history.
The story of civic innovation starts with a story about technology. I’m pretty sure that everyone in this room can agree that technology is pretty awesome. The advances we’ve made over the last 20 years, primarily in the private sector, have been nothing short of transformational. They’ve turned this into this.
This music store into Pandora.
This music store into Pandora.
Newspapers and publishing
Have turned into Flipboard (and Twitter), which is totally awesome.
And this into this. Which, while possibly less stylish, is definitely more awesome.
In the private / commercial sector, there’s been this sort of evolutionary pressure that’s forced companies to continually innovate, and we’ve developed all these awesome products and services and ways of thinking that have completely revolutionized entire industries – music, movies, publishing, telecommunications, even software development itself. Basically everything we do on a daily basis has been transformed by advances in social, mobile, and web technologies, and ways of thinking about them like Agile and Lean Startup. But as many of you know, there’s one place where that sort of evolutionary pressure and transformation has been much slower..
But, a lot of those innovations haven’t reached the government level. We’ve got a slow, siloed, closed governmental organizations that somehow still needs to meet the needs of a population that has increasingly high expectations for their product and service providers, and it’s a pretty bad situation! Governments are falling behind – technologically, for sure, in terms of their own systems, but more importantly, in being able to think about and execute on new and innovative ways to serve their citizens. Most local governments lack both the skills and the vocabulary to talk about these things. And problematically, the longer this keeps up, the longer citizens will be denied the benefits of new technology in their daily lives.
So that’s the problem, the one most of us here are trying to solve in some way or another.
So, Code for America. Code for America is a non-profit startup that connects developers and designers with local governments, helping them to innovate and keep pace with the private sector. Active for about four years, Code for America represents a new way for governments to connect with their constituents, and vice versa.
Three main elements of Code for America: The fellowship, the accelerator, and the Brigade. The Fellowship is Code for America’s flagship program. It’s a yearlong program where teams of developers, designers, and planners are sent to host cities across the country to work with local governments on technology projects. In a nutshell, Fellows quit their jobs, move to Code for America HQ in San Francisco, get 2 months of policy and civic training, and then are formed into teams and deployed to partner cities to work directly with governments and local civic groups on problems for that city. The Fellowship has been around for three years, and is in 9 cities currently, including Kansas City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Oakland, South Bend, San Mateo, Louisville, and Summit County, OH.
Boston was actually one of the very first fellowship cities. In conjunction with partners at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, they created an app called Adopt-a-Hydrant, which lets citizens “adopt” a fire hydrant that they promise to dig out during snowstorms. Per city ordinance, all hydrants have to be clear within 24 hours of snowfall, and by activating citizens in this way – folks who are going to be out shoveling their cars anyway – the City saves a ton of time and money. Adopta was also built as a platform to allow any piece of civic infrastructure to be adopted – so groups in Oakland have redeployed it for storm drains, and in Raleigh they use it for bus stops. Also, you may see that little ‘Built in Boston” tag at the bottom. It’s just a way to indicate all the great work being done locally.
Next is an Accelerator, now going into it’s second class,which works with for-profit firms operating in the civic and social good space, helping them to get off their feet.
One of the 2011 class made Recovers.org, a citizen experience and government process tool that helps community and government groups organize during disasters. It lets people in disaster areas find where to get help if they need it, and how others can volunteer time, money, and energy to the recovery effort. It was deployed in four New York neighborhoods after Hurricane Sandy – Staten Island, the Rockaways, Red Hook, and the Lower East Side, and it’s also being used to assist with recovery efforts in Moore, OK.
Lastly, is the Brigade. The Brigade is a network of local groups of citizen activists, developers, designers, government folks, urban planners, and community leaders in each city where they live, working on civic apps and open data solutions to address specific problems in each city. It’s different from the fellowship in that Brigade is all volunteer, and we’re a part of the cities in which we’re working, serving as a focal point for civic innovation activities, whereas the Fellows are more like consultants.
The Brigade is a new way to engage with the government as a citizen. As Jen says, we’re not going to fix government until we fix citizenship, until we build an active, participatory form of citizen that cares about governance and is ready to engage. As of right now, there are Brigade communities in 39 cities, including Chicago, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Tulsa, Raleigh, Denver, Grand Rapids, and of course, here in Boston, along with dozens more. We’re in constant communication with each other, sharing stories, best practices, and of course, code, creating a nationwide network of civic technologists who are learning how to improve our cities, together.
But I’m not just here to talk about any brigade. I’m here to talk about the Boston Brigade. Boston, as it turns out, is pretty awesome in the land of civic technology.
Actually, as I’ve found out over the last few months or organizing the Brigade, Boston is particularly fertile ground for civic innovation, which I guess isnt a surprise. In addition to the incredible base of tech talentand really engaged governmental and municipal partners, we have a bit of a history with this government transformation stuff. Boston is where democracy in America was born, and we should be (and are) leading the charge for this next phase of the government.
Key databeen around since october~175 members, with about 30 who are “active”. This puts us, size-wise, at one of the larger groups in the country.Meet every Tuesday at CIC
We’re currently working on five apps, one of which have been deployed, and two additional initiatives which are more policy oriented. I’ll walk you quickly through our two deployed apps, and I’m happy to answer any questions about our other work during Q&A or lunch.
The flu shot app is actually a pretty cool story. Most of you, especially those with little kids, will remember the flu outbreak we had over the winter. It got so bad, that in January, the Mayor of Boston declared an emergency and made free flu shots available to city residents. A list of clinics was published on the city website, but it was a very simple list that just included addresses and times the clinics were available. At a Brigade meeting, we thought it would be better to display those clinics on a map. And then I remembered a conversation I’d had with Chris Whitaker, my corollary at the Chicago Brigade – they’d actually built that tool earlier in the year for the flu outbreak in Chicago. I fired off a quick email to Chris, and he pointed me to the codebase and put me in direct contact with the developer. In collaboration with New Urban Mechanics, we were able to prep the app for Boston and within about 30 hours, we had it up on city servers. It was a really good example of the speed and power of the Brigade network , and we actually got a little press about it.
This is where you come in. If this resonates at all with any of you, if you feel like you could be using your skills for the benefit of the community, if you want to help make a change in government, then we’re looking for you to stand up and get involved, and there’s a few ways you can do that. You can join the Brigade and help support one of the projects already in motion, or come out and pitch a new one. The Fellowship is currently accepting applications for the 2014 class, and offers a more substantial form of engagement. You can also keep up with us on Twitter, and always feel free to drop me a line personally.
I’d also like to announce another way you can get involved: By participating in the “Instant Impact Design Challenge”. This 90-day challenge comes out of a partnership between Code for Boston, UXPA Boston, and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and is generously sponsored by ProtoShare. For the challenge, New Urban Mechanics will be providing several problem statements that represent civic problems they’re currently trying to address – examples range from redesigning the City website to better meet citizen needs to improving the experience of the City Hall To Go Truck to inspiring citizens to create parklets in their neighborhood - which will be taken on by teams of UXPA designers working in tandem with Code for Boston Brigade members. Participants will have access to Protoshare’s collaborative prototyping application to support their work, and winners of the challenge will have their application hosted live on City of Boston servers.It’s an opportunity to experience a lot of the civic innovation goodness we’ve been discussion throughout this session: applying your skills for the social good, working with developers on a live application, and being part of the solution sharing and network effect that defines the Brigade. Check out the survey link if you’re interested.
That’s what I’ve got for YOU today. Who’s got questions for me?
Boston Civic Expo Spring 2013: Code for Boston
Harlan WeberBrigade Captain | Code for Bostonhweber@codeforamerica.org
Code For Boston§ Started in October 2012§ Part of the first class of Brigade cities§ ~30 active / 175 total members§ Meet every Tuesday at CambridgeInnovation Center to work on civic techprojects
Code For Boston Projects§ Boston Flu Shot App Deployed§ Internet EBS In Progress§ Pantry Pickup In Progress§ Urbanite In Progress§ Cambridge Open Data In Progress§ Technology Education In Progress
Boston Flu Shots§ An app to help Boston residents findgovernment-issued flu shots
Internet Emergency Broadcast System§ An service to help manage crisis events
Pantry Pickup§ An app to facilitate individual donationsto food pantries
Urbanite§ An app to explore “hidden” localculture through social media
Cambridge Open Data§ Working with City Council members toadvocate for open data in Cambridge
Tech Ed§ In the beginning stages of developingan afterschool program to teach middleschoolers basic coding skills§ Working with Tech Goes Home
Join the Brigadewww.meetup.com/Code-for-BostonApply for the Fellowshipwww.codeforamerica.org/fellows/apply/Follow us on Twitter@CodeForBoston #cfabrigadeDrop me a firstname.lastname@example.orgGet Involved.
Participate in theInstant ImpactDesign Challengehttps://www.surveymonkey.com/s/79ZYDMPSponsored by
Thank You! Questions?Harlan WeberBrigade Captain | Code for Bostonhweber@codeforamerica.org