Code for America Shifts Strategy for 2015

Founder points to the areas of Health, Economic Development, and Safety and Justice as key areas for advancement.

If the 2014 Code for America Summit had one statement to make, it’s that tomorrow’s civic tech must solve problems -- and everyone, not just government, is accountable.

The admonition manifested itself throughout the civic tech group’s annual event that joined technologists and government officials from across the country for three days, Sept. 23-25, at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. CfA leadership uses the gathering to hone its mission of volunteering open sourced Web and mobile technologies that assist governments.

CfA Founder Jennifer Pahlka shaped the summit's message in the opening keynote Monday. She used government IT challenges and the failed start of the health insurance platform as a call to action, one that prods governments to open doors for help and urges tech experts to walk through them.

“[Government] implementation in the 21st century is fundamentally linked to digital, it’s inextricably linked” she said. “…if we can’t implement the policies we make, we can’t govern, and I think that creates a real anxiety that it’s our job to fix.”

Beyond motivation, Pahlka used her keynote to showcase a strategic pivot point for the nonprofit, 5 years old as of September. The change narrows CfA’s broad mission to supply free and open sourced tech development for government services to three areas:

  1. Health
  2. Economic Development
  3. Safety & Justice
The shift, which could be ascribed to CfA’s maturing focus, results from conversations that challenged the organization to think about what government IT capabilities could be and potential benefits such services might produce.
“We’re starting to dip our toes in areas where we want to return,” Pahlka said, “to go back and show that something is not just possible, but to follow that thread and have a deeper impact.”

The refreshed strategy, she noted, will not prohibit CfA development teams -- in its fellowship program, community brigades or startup accelerator -- from devoting resources to outside issues; however, first priority will lean toward the 2015 objectives.

The focus area of health was prominent at the summit. On Wednesday, Sept. 24, Pahlka officially presented Rebecca Coelius, CfA’s health portfolio Lead, hired in May to spearhead the drive.

Coelius had served as medical officer for innovation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within the Office of the National Coordinator’s Office of Science and Technology. Primary duties included working with health-care startups, investors, incubators and health IT delivery systems -- experience that complements her new duties cultivating CfA’s expanding lineup of health apps and initiatives.

As she introduced her new role, Coelius framed tasks as those that would coordinate IT development and matchmake apps to community pain points -- issues she said all governments grapple with at some level.

“It’s not just about the people who receive services," she said, "it’s also about the people who are public servants within our systems who often have inadequate tools to get the job done."

Alongside cultivation of CfA’s health portfolio, Coelius added that “human-centered design,” or user-friendly interfaces for apps, would be a primary focus.

CfA’s plunge into health is not a first for the organization, but it reflects an expanding collaboration with health officials in government. Examples of current work presented at the summit include: AddressIQ, an app managing service requests by 911 callers; Promptly, a benefits notification system for food stamp recipients; and Open Referral, an app that locates social service resources.

CfA members have likewise assisted in government-led open data health projects. The most notable being California’s August launch of its Health and Human Services Open Data Portal, an ongoing development unveiled by Estella Geraghty, project lead and deputy director for California’s Department of Public Health. The CfA brigade Code4Sac tested the site in a soft launch and have since used the data to craft WICit, an app to assist recipients of the state’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program to find healthy supplemental foods distributed by WIC vendors.

Within the ecosystem of health care, open data demands are mounting, and numerous public- and private-sector experts are championing the cause, which is estimated to make major gains through quality of care, quantity of patients and cost efficiency. Drivers of the movement in government include former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who announced the Food and Drug Administration open data portal OpenFDA in June; HHS Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak, who houses projects at his recently established HHS Idea Lab; and those like New York State Commissioner of Health Nirav Shah, who in 2013 led the effort to launch the first health open data portal for the state.

In the private sector, investor Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley billionaire, estimated in June that data science will eventually have greater impact to health care than the sector’s own biological research -- due to the accuracy, insights and potential care systems it could generate.

The strategy shift aligns CfA to be an influencer for potential innovations to come.

Pahlka did not announce portfolio leads for the areas of Economic Development or Safety & Justice -- also areas where CfA has substantial development background. However, according to job postings on the CfA website, the positions are year-long assignments with potential for extensions. Primary responsibilities are to clarify the scope of work in each focus area, build partnerships, locate related vendors that support the work, identify funding sources and bolster CfA programs to achieve greater impacts.

To finish the summit’s keynote, Palhka called on government and civic technologists to create services that foster civic benefits and partnerships that revitalize trust in government. She again highlighted taking a proactive approach --  as opposed to finger pointing -- as the underlying message.

“It only happens if we make it so,” Pahlka said.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.