Behind the Scenes: Code for America Does Denver

As CfA opens enrollment for the 2015 fellowship class -- and approaches its fifth anniversary -- CfA Fellow Becky Boone gives an inside look at the organization's work in the Mile High City.

by / June 22, 2014

As Code for America becomes more established -- it's approaching its fifth anniversary this year -- government's interest in the organization grows. There’s a recognition in the public sector that the private sector is where new ideas and innovation are born, and that the Code for America fellowship program is a conduit to harness that power. 

And it's the CfA fellows who bring to government what the private sector has grown accustomed to. And what some of these fellows have learned is that government is quite willing to work with innovative groups outside the public sector -- and to learn from them -- but there's a lot of effort and planning required that most governments can't afford. Another discovery for one fellow is that in the city she's partnered with, the open data is sometimes not as accessible as the city would like it to be.

Gist of the CfA Fellowship’s rocky launch has brought a renewed focus to important government project areas like procurement, health care and education, said Nicole Neditch, the organization's fellowship director, who added that CfA brings the speed and innovation of the startup world to government.

More specifically, Code for America fellows spend 11 months working with their designated partner cities. They spend the entire month of February in their city, and then head back to San Francisco where they spend the remainder of their time -- minus a few trips to their respective cities intermittently throughout the year -- so they can draw on the skillsets of the other fellows. Cities share their challenges with Code for America, and together, they come up with solutions -- like Cuties in Denver, a Twitter bot that helps the Denver Animal Shelter find potential animal adopters.

A Closer Look

Also in Denver, fellows are working with officials to address the city’s chosen task of reducing the amount of calls made to 311, said Becky Boone, a software developer from Anchorage, Alaska.

Boone and the rest of the Denver team work with David Edinger, Denver’s chief performance officer; Sarah Kurz, Denver’s director of strategic marketing; and Christine Binnicker, the city and county's executive director of application services -- and they check in weekly to see how the project is going, Boone said.

“We decided to look at the calls that were coming in and see what the most frequent ones were about -- a lot were about missed garbage pickup, tickets that they got from street sweeping, and all these other things that showed people have a hard time figuring out their city’s schedules,” Boone explained. 

Visitors to Denver’s website encounter a challenge frequently seen in public-sector sites: A search for “schedules” can lead to tens of thousands of search results, and the results are scattered across many agency webpages -- a result of the fragmented nature of government. And the city and county of Denver wanted an elegant solution for its scheduling, Boone said. “Our idea was to create one place they can go and get all that information.”

The team began by focusing on the street sweeping schedule. “In Denver, there are some neighborhoods where the houses don’t really have driveways, so people park in the street," Boone said, adding that this makes things difficult once a month when the street sweepers make their way through. The fellows interviewed citizens and found that time and again, the street sweeping schedule was an issue -- people just weren’t sure about it, she said.

The scheduling project represents a broader concern Denver citizens have about parking violations in general.

A recent Denver Post analysis of parking ticket data revealed that collections reached $30.5 million last year, a 53 percent increase since 2009. In 2011, the street-sweeping fine was doubled to $50, and reports of confusion surrounding the city’s scheduling for services like street sweeping support the need case for Code for America’s work in the city.

Overcoming Challenges

The next step was to get the right data from the city, Boone said. Denver has an open data portal, and the portal has street sweeping data. But, she said, there were some hiccups. The data wasn’t granular enough for the fellows' needs because route data wasn’t included, and it wasn’t machine readable, she said. They were eventually able to get the data they needed from the city and make it usable for their app, she added, but another problem arose -- the city's data set is about one year old, so the fellows need the city’s public works department to check and make sure it's still accurate.

“What’s great about this process is that there are other people, besides us, who are interested in this data," Boone said. "So while we’re going through this internally to help clean up this data, we’re making sure all the data we use is automated to the open data portal, so […] other people can do interesting things with it."

The city’s goal was to reduce 311 call volume, Boone said, and the project isn’t complete yet, but the fellows are working with the city’s technical services department to ensure the project’s specifications will ensure their work is easily absorbed and maintained by the city after they're gone. Overall, Boone said working with the city has changed how she sees government.

“I think Denver is a special case because they’re a little bit progressive in the way their technical services department operates,” she said, pointing to the fact that it has user experience designers on staff, which is unusual. "They care about the experience for citizens and the way they design their software, and they design with APIs in mind, which makes it very extensible."

And one of the things Boone says she's learned while working with Denver is just how government employees really care. "As citizens, we often don’t see that side of it -- we only blame them when things go wrong," she said. "But there’s a lot of caring people that work for the government, and that’s kind of gratifying to find out.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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