For the past four years, nonprofit fellowship program Code for America has paired programmers and other techies with cities across the nation to develop apps and projects that strengthen civic engagement to address community challenges.
Each year is similar to the next. Code for America announces its partner cities in the fall and then sends a team of fellows to those cities to help kick-start a new tech project that will improve the community. Fellows move to the cities with which they’ve been paired, and depart once projects are complete.
Since the program’s inception, Code for America has helped launch apps like BlightStatus -- which helps New Orleans residents track blighted properties -- and CityVoice, which gathers community feedback on abandoned properties in South Bend, Ind.
But the organization's underlying goals are much greater than what its partner cities and fellows are able to achieve within a 12-month timeframe.
Abhi Nemani, Code for America's co-executive director, says the group's initial goal was to find out what happens when you connect cities with technology. Now with the program four years in, he says Code for America is attempting to create an ecosystem of civic innovation.
The combination of Code for America partner cities, the tech startups incubated from the group's accelerator program and growing community involvement are what help nurture and grow the ecosystem. As the ecosystem grows, more apps and technology are developed as a result.
“You’re seeing the community step up to both use those tools but then also make them better,” Nemani said.
Nemani says Code for America must address two major issues to build a thriving civic innovation ecosystem: application sustainability and open data standards.
One key challenge for Code for America cities is ensuring that apps created during a one-year engagement live on once their hype has dissipated. So far, partner cities have pursued two strategies: one is making sure that apps developed are so valuable that cities commit to maintaining them long-term, and the other is nurturing startup businesses built around the apps.
For example, Philadelphia's Textizen app, born out of the city's Code for America fellowship, lets citizens text feedback to the city government. Since its launch, Textizen has evolved into a tech startup based in San Francisco and now supports feedback submissions for government entities outside of Philadelphia.
But other apps, like Boston’s Discover BPS, which was created with the help of 2011 Code for America fellows, have continued to be maintained within the city. Earlier this week, Boston relaunched a newer version of the app, according to city officials.
Open data standards are another foundation for building on the ongoing civic apps ecosystem – since apps built to these standards could be easily transferred to any jurisdiction using standardized data. Nemani said Code for America is helping cities develop and adopt standards for key data sets.
Earlier this year, San Francisco made restaurant inspection data available on the restaurant rating website Yelp so users can view restaurant reviews and their respective inspection grade. On Tuesday, Oct. 15, Louisville, Ky., officials announced that the city has followed suit and now also publishes restaurant inspection data on Yelp.
“Once you get a city on a data standard, once you build something in one city, it can very easily port to the next city,” Nemani said. “Data standards are a key element for scalability as well, not just for collaboration.”