For the second year in a row, Philadelphia will receive a technological assist from Code for America to help build and enhance Internet tools that bolster civic engagement.
Philadelphia is working on a neighborhood project platform application called Change By Us, which allows residents to share ideas about projects in their communities and encourage participation. Following its launch later this year, the tool will be further developed with additional enhancements in 2012.
Code for America fellows — Web developers, designers and entrepreneurs focused on making government more efficient — are assisting the city in the application’s development as part of the organization’s 2011 program and now will be on-board for the continued work on the project next year.
“Selection by Code for America for a second straight year is evidence that Philadelphia is at the forefront of the movement towards more open, transparent and participatory urban governance,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, in a statement.
Code for America is a nonprofit organization that pairs technology and Web enthusiasts with city governments. Code for America’s fellowship program pays fellows a $35,000 stipend, along with health-care benefits and travel expenses.
The “brotherly love” from Philadelphia officials goes both ways. Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, expressed her appreciation for the city, calling Philadelphia “one of our strongest partners, inside and outside city hall.”
Jeff Friedman, manager of civic innovation and participation in Nutter’s office, likened Change By Us to an organizational and management tool that’s a mashup of Facebook and Microsoft Project.
|Read Govtech.com’s story on Change by Us, which is being implemented in New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle.|
“Some describe it as a Facebook that has functionality that enables you to get initiatives and projects done in your neighborhood,” Friedman said. “It looks sophisticated enough to be really helpful in getting work done, but simple enough to use to get a nice cross-section of users to use it effectively.”
In addition to work on Change By Us, Friedman said that Code for America fellows have also been busy on a variety of “20 percent” projects — meaning 20 percent of their time — including a mural arts application and programs that make information from city council meetings more easily attainable.
Despite splitting time between the Code for America headquarters in San Francisco and Philadelphia, Friedman said that the fellows generated a lot of excitement in Philadelphia. He said he thinks of the fellows as extensions of city staff, helping Philadelphia achieve deeper collaboration with outside partners.
“They were booked solid almost every day they were here, meeting with people,” Friedman recalled. “They ended up meeting with literally hundreds of people [and] they were good conduits between what we’re trying to do in city government and folks on the outside.”
In addition to Philadelphia, Code for America announced that Detroit and Macon, Ga., would also be 2012 project cities.
In the Motor City, Code for America fellows will help Detroit officials organize data on vacant properties to give a clear picture of what available real estate is like. The goal is to develop an online system for registering and managing the city’s vacant properties and enable better decision-making regarding those lots.
Other uses of the system include helping Detroit’s planning personnel make better use of space and improving the local economy through new business.
Residents of Macon, Ga., have seen a number of advancements in communication and transparency from the city in recent years, including a more informative website, live streaming of city council meetings and an improved service request system.
With the help of Code for America fellows, however, city officials are hoping to take that one step further. The fellows and Macon personnel will create a technology suite aimed at improving the connection between citizens and government services.
Code for America will select additional cities for its 2012 program in the near future. The organization said in a press release that six to eight cities total would be picked from a pool of more than 20 local governments. Philadelphia, Detroit and Macon were the first ones selected “because of their proposed project, community support and the opportunity for impact.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.