In this map, green markers show hydrants that groups in Boston have adopted to dig out during snowstorms. The red ones are available for adoption. The Adopt-A-Hydrant program is one of many public data projects made possible through technology. Image courtesy of adoptahydrant.org.

Civic Developers, Designers Helping Build Better Communities Through Open Data Revolution

Robert Campbell considered himself an engaged citizen.

The 47-year-old Cary, N.C., resident volunteered with his town’s technology task force and participated in the community’s annual open data day.

Then, he got serious.

On July 31, 2013, Campbell — a manager at Cisco Systems — became a Code for America brigade captain for his region. He also continues his work as a community volunteer.

“I see this as a way for me to stay engaged with my town and get tangible results,” he says. “I see a way to keep not only myself engaged, but reach out to others in the community.

“Some people want to build parks. I want to see more technology and apps in the town.”

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Campbell is among a host of civic-minded people and groups across the country contributing to what has been dubbed the Open Data Revolution, in which government information is mined and made available through technology to empower citizens, improve efficiency and advance economic landscapes. Such work could unlock $3 trillion to $5 trillion annually in the United States, according to an October 2013 report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

For Campbell and like-minded residents in his town, making government information accessible and easy to use has evolved into presenting development data in a meaningful way — through an app, he says.

“Imagine you are out in your community and you see something being built (ground dug up or that familiar construction box),” he says. “With our map/app, you launch it, using the geolocation service of your phone, we locate you on the map (constrained to our region for now) and on the map is shown the parcels of construction around you. You can tap on one of those polygons and you are given info and a link to the official plans for the site.”

To create the app, the residents used information from the Cary GIS and permits department. See the app’s beta version at http://codeforcary.org/dev.html.

Doing Work Together — There’s an App for That

Such grassroots activism and a new generation of tech-savvy citizens is what Jennifer Pahlka looked to in 2009 when she founded Code for America.

“There is a large community of people that are building the tools that we need to do things together effectively,” Pahlka said in her March 2012 TED Talk. “It’s not just Code for America fellows. There are hundreds of people all over the country that are standing up and writing civic apps every day in their own communities. They haven’t given up on government. They are frustrated as hell with it, but they’re not complaining about it. They are fixing it. And, these folks know something that we’ve lost sight of and that’s that when you strip away all your feelings about politics and the line at the DMV and all those other things that we’re really mad about, government is at its core, in the words of Tim O’Reilly, what we do that we can’t do alone.”

Code for America works with others to develop new tools that can transform mundane municipal undertakings into participatory government.

In January 2011, the city of Boston was hit with more than 38 inches of snow, about three times the average snowfall for the month. During the storm, Boston’s more than 13,000 fire hydrants were buried, leaving them of little use to the city’s firefighters.

Enter CFA fellow Erik Michaels-Ober, who worked with the city in a single weekend to develop the app Adopt-A-Hydrant.

The technology allows Boston residents to claim a fire hydrant, name it and shovel away snow for access after storms, helping improve local government efficiency — and freeing up firefighters and public works employees to tackle other pressing issues.

“This app represents how a new generation is tackling the problem of government,” Pahlka says in her TED Talk. “Not as a problem of an ossified institution but as a problem of collective action and that’s great news because it turns out we are very good at collective action with digital technology.”

Cities around the country are building on the basic source code for the app to address other critical needs. The city of Honolulu has used the technology to offer an Adopt-A-Siren app that residents use to claim one of more than 170 tsunami sirens to ensure they are functioning and that necessary batteries have not been stolen from the equipment.

The Adopt-a-Siren campaign on Hawaii's Big Island. Image courtesy of http://sirens.honolulu.gov/
The Adopt-A-Siren campaign on Oahu. Image courtesy of http://sirens.honolulu.gov/

Additionally, government officials in Seattle have used the technology to launch Adopt-A-Drain, where residents can claim one of the city’s 80,000 storm drains and maintain it to ensure it is functioning properly and not clogged.

“Technology is making it possible to fundamentally reframe the function of government, in a way that can actually scale by strengthening civil society,” Pahlka says in her TED Talk. “And, there’s a generation out there that has grown up on the Internet and they know it’s not that hard to do things together. We just have to architect the system the right way.”

Shining a Digital Light on Government Data

Creating a system that engages the machinery of government with technology is the focus of a first-time effort by the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

Go Code Colorado is an apps challenge launched in March that makes government data more accessible and user-friendly so business owners can capitalize on it and help improve the state’s economy.

The challenge has pulled together teams of developers and entrepreneurs from across the state to solve business problems including:

  • Business-site location
  • Competitive landscape
  • Access to capital
  • Higher-education resources
  • Business partners

Using real-world examples of issues faced by business owners and showcasing information available — but not easily accessible — has been an important part of the challenge, says Brian Gryth, program manager for the Business Intelligence Center with the Secretary of State’s office.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback and participation,” Gryth says. “Hearing the challenges the business community is facing made it tangible.”

A handful of chosen regional teams will present their work during a final competition on Friday, when judges will choose the most effective and relevant designs.

Teams of designers and developers have participated in Go Code Colorado since its launch in March. The apps challenge focuses on making government data more accessible and user-friendly so business owners can capitalize on it and help improve the state’s economy. (Courtesy of Virginia Stiles Photography)
Teams of designers and developers have participated in Go Code Colorado since its launch in March. The apps challenge focuses on making government data more accessible and user-friendly so business owners can capitalize on it and help improve the state’s economy. (Courtesy of Virginia Stiles Photography)

Examples of the finalists’ work, include:

Team 5C01 — Developed an app for business partners

Like the Match.com of connecting nonprofits and for-profit businesses, this group’s app uses the list of registered Colorado nonprofits to verify a status and, through a matching algorithm, pairs businesses and nonprofits with similar cultures and goals.

Team StudentLink — Developed an app for higher-education resources

The app connects students and small businesses based on the students’ skill sets and the businesses’ requirements as well as location. It allows for immediate contact, eliminating a recruiter.

Team BizLink Colorado — Developed an app for business partners

The app helps businesses find other local service providers like accountants and landscapers. Business owners can search for and start using service providers.

Team Progress Local — Developed an app for business-site location

The app helps businesses gain exposure through the automated syndication of business listing data from the Secretary of State’s database, augmented by third-party APIs and enhanced by business owners.

The Go Code Colorado winning teams will receive cash awards and in-kind incentives. The final apps will be fully implemented by July 1.

Big Data Can Hold Big Government Responsible

While improving the economic landscape is the focus of Go Code Colorado, the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C., has worked for years to create technology to improve government accountability.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization offers a variety of apps geared toward everything from exposing dark money in campaign ads to tracking legislation.

One app, Scout, even offers alerts for people tracking certain issues, says Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, a department of the Sunlight Foundation.

“Scout is a sort of Google alerts for issues,” Lee says. “Here, we have people really interested in the Freedom of Information Act. Through the app, we set up an alert for any bills coming that touched part of the U.S. code where FOIA is defined. Recently, we got an alert that the FDA was putting forward a bill with a big FOIA exemption for drugs with clinical trials. We know other NGOs and groups interested in this and we reached out to them. They had no idea that the information was in the bill.

“That is a great example of what technology can enable by increasing the transparency in government and lowering the costs and oversight.”


Getting the 411

Groups across the country are capitalizing on a new generation of tech-savvy people interested in making government information and activities more accessible.

To do so, they are writing civic apps and developing other tools to create a government by the people, for the people in the 21st century.

Some groups include:

Sunlight Foundation — SunlightFoundation.com

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for open government and uses technology to improve government accountability.

Code for America — CodeForAmerica.org

Often dubbed the Peace Corps for geeks, Code for America is a nonprofit that helps residents and government use technology to solve community problems.

Data.gov — Data.gov

This is the home of federal, state and local data, tools and resources to conduct research, build apps, design data visualizations and more.

Project Open Data — http://project-open-data.github.io

The White House developed Project Open Data — a collection of code, tools and case studies — to help agencies unlock government data.

The Governance Lab @ NYU — TheGovLab.org

The GovLab builds, studies and implements technology for a collaborative, networked approach to government and processes.

Make a Difference

Do you want to help NASA track asteroids? Are you interested in making consumer safety reports and product recalls more accessible?

Check out challenge.gov. The site is a collection of challenge and prize competitions hosted by the federal government. The challenges include technical, scientific and creative competitions where the government is seeking solutions from the public.

Hack for the Government

Google will host a hackathon for government issues in Colorado May 17-18 in Denver.

The two-day event’s challenges won’t be made public until the event starts. Colorado and Wyoming are partnering with Google in the app challenge that offers a $5,000 top prize.

Colorado had a similar hackathon last year that led to creation of programs including Tutorgrape, which allows students to locate tutors in their communities.

For more information, visit www.govdevchallenge.com.