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Coding Skills Combine With Civic Consciousness to Improve Government

May 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Code for America, a San Francisco nonprofit, enlists high tech professionals to work with local governments to create tools to help average citizens tackle hunger, blight and other civic problems. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Making cities work better through high-tech innovation,that’s the ambitious goal of one San Francisco startup.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our report.

SPENCER MICHELS: The scrambled eggs and homemade waffles disappeared quickly at this free breakfast for children and their moms in East Palo Alto, a largely minority community in the heart of California’s wealthy Silicon Valley.

Many residents here, possibly tens of thousands, qualify for food assistance programs, but aren’t accessing them. Some are simply unaware such programs exist. That was the case with Jackie Owens, a single working mom who says she was struggling to get by before she learned about the nonprofit Ecumenical Hunger Program.

JACKIE OWENS, Mother: I was in touch with social work, and I never heard about this program until word of mouth through a friend.

SPENCER MICHELS: Beverly Johnson is in charge of food assistance programs for San Mateo County.

BEVERLY JOHNSON, San Mateo County Human Services Agency: We actually had been struggling with the issue of providing access to food, to free food, to reduced-priced food for our residents of our county.

SPENCER MICHELS: Johnson and her government colleagues decided to try a very un-governmental approach to the problem. They reached out to a group of savvy young techies for help.

This is the headquarters of Code for America, Code as in computer code. It’s a new San Francisco-based nonprofit which connects technology professionals, like Web programmers and designers, to local governments, like San Mateo County, which are seeking innovative ways to improve their services.

MAN: You have a well-defined community with attributes around who is participating.

SPENCER MICHELS: Code for America, which has been dubbed the Peace Corps for geeks, offers a one-year paid fellowship for high-tech applicants who want to give back. The organization receives funding from the Knight Foundation, Google, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s foundation, as well as from the cities which receive help.

Fellows have developed more than 50 websites and applications, or apps, to help solve a specific problem facing a city and its residents. This one in Boston allows residents to adopt a fire hydrant and be responsible for shoveling it out when it snows and a website in New Orleans tracks how the city is dealing with blighted properties.

JENNIFER PAHLKA, Founder, Code for America: We think the people who have the skills of coding and design at creating technology really have something to offer the country right now, and we think government is where they need to bring it.

SPENCER MICHELS: The goal of Code for America, says 43-year-old founder Jennifer Pahlka, is to inject some Silicon Valley enthusiasm and know-how into local governments.

JENNIFER PAHLKA: So few people vote these days, and I think it’s partly because they don’t feel like the institution really means anything to them. If you want them to vote, give them opportunities to do something else other than vote, to help. Government is supposed to be about how we do things together, and we can do that much more together if we use technology smartly right now.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some fellows have come from well-known tech companies like Apple and Yahoo, and many take a sizable pay cut, receiving $35,000 dollars for the year.

Moncef Belyamani came to Code for America from AOL. He is part of a three-person team, including Sophia Parafina and Anselm Bradford, assigned to work with San Mateo County.

MONCEF BELYAMANI, Code for America: I saw a unique opportunity to use my skills and being surrounded by smart and talented people who share the same vision for improving society.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ten cities and counties were chosen this year to receive Code for America’s help, out of dozens that applied. The San Mateo County team spent a month meeting with residents and officials involved in food distribution to understand how the whole process worked.

SOPHIA PARAFINA, Code for America: We have worked at community shelters, and with food distribution, helping sort food, prepare food, and helping people carry the food out to cars and talking to them.

MONCEF BELYAMANI: Another project we participated in was the food stamps challenge. So we all pledged to try to live on the average weekly allotment, which is $37.25. And that was very eye-opening.

SPENCER MICHELS: Were you hungry?

MONCEF BELYAMANI: Yes, we were hungry.

SPENCER MICHELS: The three discovered many social service workers lacked up-to-date information about food programs. They are now developing a program they think could help.

ANSELM BRADFORD: We’re going to build an application that helps the different community-based organizations refer clients to the services that they would be eligible for.

SOPHIA PARAFINA: If we put this thing on the web, people can go and look for themselves, and access these services.

ANSELM BRADFORD: So if you need something like say food, you can type food in here.

SPENCER MICHELS: They met recently met with Donald Hunter, program manager of the Ecumenical Hunger Program, to get his feedback

DONALD HUNTER, Ecumenical Hunger Program: It sounds like it is a good idea. It will be very important that individuals get involved with the agencies because a majority of people don’t have computers or access to Internet. So I see it missing a lot of people in this area because of that.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite Hunter’s reservations, the team believes that many residents in the community will be able to access the technology they are developing.

SOPHIA PARAFINA: In our focus groups, we talk to people, and they have access to the Web. They go to the libraries. They borrow other people’s computers. Some of them have smartphones. So the technology is pervasive, and it is there, and people are willing to use it. It’s a matter of taking that technology and turning it into something that anybody can use.

SPENCER MICHELS: They also have stayed in close touch with human services director Beverly Johnson.

BEVERLY JOHNSON: I assume that we have to have, with whatever is developed, someone who says, I’m the — sort of the keeper of the data.

SPENCER MICHELS: Johnson says she is excited about how the project is developing, but she has one big question.

BEVERLY JOHNSON: If we invest in the time and energy and we come up with something that’s beautiful and simple and easy to use, but a year from now, they go away, and we don’t have the resources to make it really a reality for our organization, have we done anything, other than sort of create an expectation?

JUDY NADLER, Former Mayor of Santa Clara, Calif.: I think this is an opportunity to help, but I don’t see it as any kind of a magic pill.

SPENCER MICHELS: Judy Nadler is the former mayor of Santa Clara, California and now teaches at Santa Clara University. When she was at City Hall, she found it was tough for government to actually implement new programs imposed from the outside.

JUDY NADLER: Having great ideas is wonderful, but how can you pay for it and how can you sustain that? It takes people and it takes resources, and government is short right now on both.

SPENCER MICHELS: Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka says keeping the projects going once the fellows’ year is over is one of her top priorities.

JENNIFER PAHLKA: What we have seen is some of our projects don’t live on, but most of them have. The team that worked with New Orleans on this project around being able to see the status of blighted properties …

SPENCER MICHELS: Blighted properties?

JENNIFER PAHLKA: Blighted properties are …


JENNIFER PAHLKA: Exactly. They did a really fantastic job there. The city was so happy, they offered the team a contract to continue to maintain and further develop that software, so that New Orleans always has access to it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Pahlka says governments should be open to new and more cost-effective ways of doing business.

JENNIFER PAHLKA: We’re spending too much money on government technology. That’s absolutely clear. We saw last year that the California court system shut down an effort that had so far cost two billion dollars, and it wasn’t to send a man to the moon. It was to get the courts to be able to share documents.

We’re not going to be taking on two billion dollar software projects, but we are showing what’s possible, and then giving people in government the political will to say, no, let’s not do it that way this time.

SPENCER MICHELS: Code for America isn’t the only current effort hoping to bring technology solutions to government. Last year, the White House began a Presidential Innovation Fellows program. And some cities are inviting tech-savvy volunteers to develop civic apps during sessions known today as “hackathons.”

After getting more feedback from residents and officials, the San Mateo team expects to launch its food app by October. And, in January, a new group of eager young tech enthusiasts arrives to take on a new set of civic challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, Spencer sat down with two Code for America fellows who founded BlightStatus, the app that tracks how the city of New Orleans is dealing with abandoned buildings. You can watch their conversation on the Rundown.