I love that scene in “The Natural.” The one where the coach, Pop Fisher, says: “I should have been a farmer”.
My version of it is “I should have been a programmer”. I’ve always wished that I had followed that career path. Instead, a less than pleasant experience in my first college programming class (anyone still remember Pascal?) convinced me to focus my energies elsewhere and I became an attorney. Perhaps this is the reason that I’ve always been drawn to working with engineers and programmers and providing them the business and legal support they need to innovate and create technical solutions to the problems facing society.
That’s why I find Code for America (“CFA”) so intriguing. Drawing on a legacy of government and non-profit volunteerism (Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America), CFA recruits and funds bright, energetic and passionate software programmers, project managers and web designers to participate for up to 11 months as a CFA Fellow. In this role, they are matched with local governments (currently in eight U.S. cities), which provide resources and support to accelerate the use of technology to solve the problems faced by their communities.
Some examples of CFA projects include:
- A mobile phone app. that allows parents in Boston to determine the location of their child’s school bus (an especially valuable tool during severe snow storms when the school phone systems are overloaded with calls from frantic parents).
- An online process that streamlines the governmental approvals necessary to open a business in Santa Cruz, California.
- An open source platform that helps the local government in Philadelphia facilitate city improvement activities through use of volunteers.
- Organizing data on vacant properties in Detroit to support the fight against urban blight (in this city that has lost more than 25% of its population during the last decade).
- An mobile app. that helps citizens easily navigate public transit systems in Macon, Georgia.
- A real time information system for tracking wildfires in the Austin area.
Although these applications are created for specific cities, they are written using open source software (e.g. Drupal, for content management, and Ushahidi, for crowdsourcing/mapping) so that they can be easily redeployed in other cities. After all, most cities face the same types of issues and resource constraints.
You can argue that these applications are interesting, but they don’t really move the needle. (Please, please, CFA come up with a “killer app” that eliminates the need for me to ever visit the DMV again.) That may be right; however, it’s early. CFA, has only been in operation for a little over two years and on a very limited basis.
And CFA may have an even more important value than the specific projects completed by CFA Fellows. We can all find a reason to complain about government, but there are few of us who can argue that we don’t need it. Even, Grover Norquist in his oft-cited quote about shrinking government “down to a size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” acknowledged that he wasn’t in favor of abolishing it. The issue isn’t the size of government, but how to make it more efficient, more accessible and more responsive to citizens.
To do this we need a new generation of energetic, intelligent and concerned citizens that have the technical skills to create Government 2.0. And, we need them to become part of government. Perhaps, through participating in CFA projects, some CFA Fellows will continue their work on either a volunteer basis or as government employees. More geeks in government would be a very good thing.