Year to Date Report from Team MaconCode for America, 2012
OUR APPROACH IN MACONMacon did not have a specific project in mind when applying for Code for America.During residency we sought out opportunities for using new technology, increasingtransparency, and engaging residents.Meeting with many city departments, residents, and local organizers helped identifythe opportunities which were most important, across the board. Those opportunitiesinclude SPLOST (local bond referendums), transportation, code enforcement,and business licensing. We have identified and continue to work on ways to buildsustainable, replicable solutions for these issues — all the while, remaining mindful thatMacon is a unique city with a unique population not always best served by smartphoneand web only applications.The apps we build for Macon meet a need and allow us to demonstrate the value inopening data, improve communication across departments/governments, and createplatforms for both citizen feedback and application reuse.Macon, GeorgiaIn the 11 county region known as MiddleGeorgia or the Heart of Georgia | 2 hourssouth of Atlanta | Population of 91,000 |Median Household Income is $28,366Team Members: Nick Dorion, Jessica Lord and Zach Williams
The Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority runs 11 routes through Macon, surroundingBibb County, and a commuter line to the Warner Robbins Air Force Base. Many ofMacon’s citizens depend on transit to get to and from work and around town (>3000ppl / day ). We saw an opportunity to make transit more convenient for current ridersand to promote transit to a new audience.To make the system easier to understand we created an interactive map of the networkwith all available routes. The MTA now uses this on their website. It has replaced theirprevious map which was static, not viewable on mobile devices, and had inaccurateroutes. In the future, this map will also feature an address search and include the nextdeparture times at each stop. Jessica presented the process of building this map at theState of the Map Conference in Portland this fall.To make travel on the MTA more convenient, we are showing a bus times and providinga bus times API. We calculated these times from records in the MTA’s internalRouteMatch system and our own mobile phones. Before our launch, the only wayto get schedule information was an in-person visit to the main office or a series ofconfusing forms online. Schedules covered only a few main stops, compared to ourexisting system which provides the next inbound and outbound bus times for any stop.We launched this map at the MTA Try Transit Week fair in late June. Several hundredcommunity members toured the site, and local colleges commented on the need forthis map for their students’ informationTRANSITmta-mac.com/map.htmlplatform for transparency, platform for reaching underserved citizenry, platform for citizen commentPROJECTSInaccurate map the MTA was previously using online and a screenshot of our SMS text messaging bus schedule app.
Our up-to-date interactive system map with bus stops.
Message Macon allows anyone to text in a public works issue to the city’s SeeClickFixsite. While in Macon, several City Council members mentioned that most citizencomplaints were public works related. This app expands access for the majorityof Macon residents to report issues from their phones, using the more accessibletechnology of text messaging. Building this on top of the Open311 API allows cities withSeeClickFix and other issue trackers to re-use our app.We are partnering with the city and local non-profits to pilot the program in theLynmore Estates and Historic Macon neighborhoods.MESSAGE MACONmessagemacon.complatform to reach underserved citizenry, platform for citizen actionPROJECTSThe website supporting the Message Macon app.
In neighborhoods across Macon, blight poses a threat to communities and homes. As the state updatestheir standards for building surveys and vacancies, Macon’s TeleMagic system from 1997 cannot keepup with existing needs and could undermine city and community projects which use web / mobiletechnology. Without GIS information, the city was limited in its ability to analyze the problem of blightacross the city or map houses on their demolition list.Our partnership with Macon allows us to publish the data in a new way and increase transparency. Weworked closely with two neighborhood groups — Habitat for Humanity and College Hill Alliance — toexplain our project, create custom visualizations for their neighborhood, and speak with members oftheir communities.The College Hill Alliance asked us to produce an animated map to visualize reduction of blight in theirneighborhood over the past several years. The project is open-sourced as GeoData Checkout, a generaltool where you can create animated maps of blight and construction of historic buildings in Macon.BLIGHT & INCENTIVES MAPhomestatus.orgplatform for transparency, platform for citizen actionPROJECTSPhotos from South Macon.
Site to allow residents to easily learn the status of code inforement cases.
Starting a small business takes guts, and trying to navigate government bureauocracyis often confusing and harder than it needs to be. Macon is no exception.We met with the Macon-Bibb Planning and Zoning Commission to develop a flowchartof the process which is clear, straightforward and accessible. Currently, there is nosource online that walks entrepreneurs through the full process.We created a diagram and gathered contact information for a site targeted at newbusiness owners. This site could serve as a model for other cities with similar issuesand would be easy to replicate. The upcoming consolidation of Macon and BibbCounty will likely change this process, so we did not take the site beyond MVP phase.Creating a better system has real potential for impact - from a citizen’s faith in theirgovernment’s processes to economic development though filling empty storefronts.BUSINESS LICENSING / REGULATIONSmaconbibb.bizplatform for transparency, platform for citizen impactPROJECTSPortion of working flow-chart of the licensing and permiting process in Macon.
Community Meeting at City Hall and Presentations to City CouncilEarly in February, we held an open community meeting at City Hall where we invitedresidents to join us and learn what we are doing in Macon and offer their feedback. Wepresented to Macon’s City Council during three of their public meetings, including ourfinal presentation in October. Jessica and Nick presented four major projects designedfor Macon this year (Transit Map, SPLOST, HomeStatus, and OpenStreetMap data).Skillshare at LibraryIn February, we held an event at the main branch of the Macon-Bibb County Libraryand used their new Knight-funded computer lab to host a series of sessions on toolssuch as Twitter and Google Docs. Residents, including the Mayor, came to learn andwent home with a new set of skills.Community Meeting at Joshua Cup (local cafe)In February, we held an additional community meeting in which we rented out a room,served coffee and invited residents to come and have a talk with us. Technology Association of GeorgiaIn June, Nick spoke at the Technology Association of Georgia, which includesgovernment officials and developers from the Atlanta area. Several learned about Codefor America for the first time and shared their ideas for developing a SPLOST appwhich could be used by local governments across Georgia.Try Transit WeekOur transit map had its official launch at Macon’s Try Transit Week: a week of eventsand special rates promoting transit in Macon. Nick handed out flyers and answeredquestions from citizens. The local newspaper wrote an article about the launch of themap.Mercer CS MeetingsMercer University’s Computer Science Department took an early interest in Code forAmerica’s work. We presented at classes and at four meetings of MUGTUG, a groupof students and professors interested in web development. Nick presented Codefor America projects and data APIs at the university’s weekly Computer ScienceColloquium.Macon MapsAs part of our open data initiatives, Nick collaborated with the College Hill Allianceand Habitat for Humanity to hold a meeting at Mercer University’s new Center forCollaborative Journalism. Community groups used open data from Macon and BibbCounty to map their impact. Attendees then discussed Code for America projects andthe need for more open data and technology initiatives in the city.EVENTS
Macon is unique amongst Code for America cities but not unique in America. Macondoesn’t have the network of tech communities that support some Code for Americaprojects. Despite its historic, walkable downtown, the region of Middle Georgia ismostly suburban and a two hour drive away from the nearest major city. Macon hasbeen listed by Forbes as one of the most impoverished cities of its size, but it doesn’thave the national buzz that cities like Detroit or New Orleans use to gain attention andsupport. The challenges that make us differ from other CfA cities, we feel, make usmore like every other American city. We believe that our work opens the door for CfA’spartner cities in 2013 and other cities like Macon across the country.One of our quick wins was GridMapper, a response map for rapidly assessing damageafter natural disasters. The Emergency Management Agency (EMA) manages localdisaster preparation and response, receives calls, and shades in a grid over a papermap. During our visit, the director asked us if we could digitize that map and share itwith the public. We developed an online map and followed up several times to makethe map fit their needs. It’s currently one of their main links from their emergencyresponse dashboard, WebEOC.When we visited one of Macon’s fire stations in February, our IT contact went with us.We got to go up in the bucket of the ladder truck! In one of our interviews, we foundthat only three out of nineteen stations had internet access. Firefighters need internetaccess to take online classes at the station and look up official records from the sceneof a fire. They told us about connecting their top-of-the-line firefighter ToughBook to apersonal cell phone in order to connect. Within a few weeks, our IT contact had actedto give each fire station a connection to high-speed internet and a WiFi hotspot.STORIES
While working to create the transit apps, we lost a lot of time because no one at theMTA fully understood what their software was or where their data was stored. Theyalso could not get us in touch with their software provided whom they passed all ITissues onto. It became clear that it’s important to have a champion for your cause atthe city. Amanda Deaton and Beverly Blake made great efforts to express to the MTAthat this was important, the Mayor supported our project, and they had an opportunityto work with us. After we revealed to the agency that their software produced data wecould use to build tools, they didn’t feel confident whether they owned their own data.We also struggled to talk about these things and really show them what we could doover email. It wasn’t until we were able to send a team member, Nick, back to Macon tosit down, talk, and present our site to the agency that we were able to gain their trust,release our map, and hand off the data.Macon and the surrounding Bibb County have separate and sparring governmentscurrently in the process of consolidation. We have struggled as the county holds muchof the useful data we want to use in our work with the city.Government as a platform: cities should engage their citizens by publishing APIs whichmake their data available to a variety of applications and users. Open government andAPIs are not such a radical idea for us; it’s just a logical first step to making any appsavailable.None of the government groups which we met in Middle Georgia — even those withlarge datasets — had an API to share their data. Bibb County appeared to be takingthe lead by sharing their buildings data and upgrading their maps system. Their newsystem includes an API for third-party developers. When we started showing potentialapplications of their maps data to the city, the county demanded we remove our apps.The county was not aware that their data was made accessible by their GIS. We quicklycomplied with the county, but our relationship with the county was damaged. We latermade amends, and the county approved of our use of their buildings data to show theimpact of Habitat for Humanity.LEARNINGSThroughout the development process, we have made technical decisions to supportour projects’ sustainability. Our SPLOST site is based on Wordpress, allowing it tobe set up and maintained by city employees without depending on IT departments.Projects such as Message Macon and our Blight & Incentives Map are hosted onHeroku, a reliable service based on Amazon’s cloud computing network. Heroku’sopen-source platform avoids lock-in - at any point Macon could shift the apps to localservers.The best measure of Code for America’s sustainability will be how our momentum iscontinued. Our contacts at Mercer University, the Macon Telegraph, the Middle GeorgiaRegional Commission, and Macon’s own IT department all have the potential to befuture advocates for open government. As Macon transitions to a consolidated city andcounty, our frameworks for releasing data and bringing government services onlineoffer an opportunity for this new government to continue our work.SUSTAINABILITY