'Code for America' Fellows Aim to Make Pittsburgh More Transparent

Mayor Bill Peduto said he wants the three fellows who will spend a year in Pittsburgh to help open up city purchasing to small businesses and others who have been historically shut out.

by Robert Zullo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / February 13, 2015

The matching pullovers made it look like an Apollo space mission, Mayor Bill Peduto quipped.

Introducing the three twentysomethings who will take a crack at making city procurement more transparent this year, Mr. Peduto charged them with a task not quite as lofty as a moon landing but maybe just as difficult.

Contracts and campaign contributions often are the fuel that powers political machines, but Mr. Peduto said he wants the three Code for America fellows who will spend a year in Pittsburgh to help open up city purchasing to small businesses and others who have been historically shut out of the process and strip away “that whole machine.”

“For the taxpayers, they’re basically left in the dark they look at government with suspicion because they don’t really see how their money’s being spent,” Mr. Peduto said at the Thursday news conference. “What if we shed light on it so everyone could see how that money has an influence and then take away the influence by allowing more people to bid on contracts.”

Pittsburgh was one of eight government entities selected to receive 2015 fellows from the national nonprofit, which allows young technology professionals to spend a year working to make government services “simple, effective and easy to use,” a news release said.

“We’re going to create the model for cities all around this country and all around the world to follow,” Mr. Peduto said.

Pittsburgh’s three fellows are starting work in a city government attempting to rapidly modernize paper processes that have lagged behind the rest of the country, Mr. Peduto’s administration has said. That includes a building inspection department that did not have widespread Internet service, access to cell phones or email until last year.

They are: Patrick Hammons, a 29-year-old cartographer and “civic hacker” from Oregon who worked as an analyst in Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology preparing maps and data releases; Shelly Ni, 26, a designer from Richland, Wash., and a co-founder of Propel, a small team of designers who created a smartphone application for food stamps; and Ben Smithgall, a 24-year-old from Pine who worked on digital and data teams for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign as well as at music streaming company Spotify.

“I have a huge soft spot for this city,” said Ms. Ni, who lived in Pittsburgh three years ago before leaving for graduate school. “I’m excited to contribute to work that will make it a better place to live. … We are humbled by the opportunity to be here and grateful for the trust that Pittsburgh has placed in us.”

However, there were few details Thursday about the form the procurement exercise might take.

“This … is really a month focused on understanding the research,” Ms. Ni said. “We are trying to wrap our heads around the entire process around purchasing, both on the city side and on the business side.”

Mr. Peduto, City Controller Michael Lamb and some city council members have pushed several similar initiatives. They include the city financial information website that went live last week, legislation authorizing online auctions of surplus city property and an online snow plow tracker, among others.

©2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette