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SXSW: Code For America Founder Rallies 'Geek Army'

Jennifer Pahlka showcases early successes of citizen software engineers who, she says, can solve systematic problems in American cities in a way voting--or bureaucracy--cannot.

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Vote the bums out, or vote the leader of your choice in, but government will still be broken if the software it runs on doesn't work as well as it ought to.

When Code for America founder and executive director Jennifer Pahlka addressed the crowd at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, this week, she was able to report some early successes from the program's first class of citizen coder fellows. Code for America will be expanding its program to cover more cities in 2012, thanks in part to a $1.5 million grant from Google, announced in December. Code for America is also introducing an accelerator program to encourage startups focused on solving public sector problems and a coder's brigade to encourage individuals who don't have a year to devote to a fellowship to start something in their own communities.

This is a story of social media, partly, and socially active digital media, definitely.

The SXSW Interactive program celebrates the best in Web 2.0 and mobile apps, but Pahlka explained that if digital innovators could get a peek "behind the counter" at the tools that state and local bureaucrats have to work with, they would have a better understanding of why government tends to be inefficient and unresponsive. Even those computer systems that have graduated from green-screen user interfaces are likely to be clunky Web applications that run only on old versions of Internet Explorer, cluttered with drop-down menus full of obsolete options.

[ Has life's great mystery been solved? See SXSW: How NetBase Knows What Women Want.]

"You guys have this exuberance, this willingness to experiment," Pahlka told the crowd, describing her mission as "getting you guys excited about government." The "geek army" assembled at SXSW has skills that government needs, she said. "If you see something that's broken, you want to fix it."

Previously, Pahlka ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 Summit events for TechWeb (also The BrainYard's and InformationWeek's parent company), in conjunction with O'Reilly Media, and co-chaired Web 2.0 Expo. Working with Tim O'Reilly on the Gov 2.0 event series got her excited about the potential of technology to change the way government works. She conceived of Code for America as a non-profit that would follow roughly the same model as Teach for America, a program started in the 1990s that asks professionals to devote a year to teaching in the public schools. Too many people think the only way to change government is by voting, and then are frustrated when voting in new leaders fails to achieve big changes, she said. Much of the reason for that is that bureaucracies continue as leaders come and go, and they are what determines how well and how efficiently the government delivers services.

"We have to engage at lower levels of the system if we are to change the basic machinery of government," Pahlka said. The Code for America fellows have a chance to achieve more change because "they are not just being politically active, they are being bureaucratically active," she said.

In addition to enlisting fellows for the program, Pahlka hoped to inspire more startups to focus on civic software. "This is the last undisrupted market. The problem is people like you would rather get their teeth pulled than work with government," she said. However, a new generation of city leaders is trying to bring more innovation into government and lower some of the procurement barriers that have made them hard to do business with in the past, she said.

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David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
3/15/2012 | 5:53:04 PM
re: SXSW: Code For America Founder Rallies 'Geek Army'
I like the sentiment, Deb, although I'm not sure that bureaucratic bottlenecks are as big of an obstacle in public education, at least not in a way that software can easily address. Who's going to write the code to make the teacher's union, school system, and political overseers all work together productively. Probably the best web 2.0 contribution to public education so far would have to be see the video of him from the Web 2.0 Summit
Deb Donston-Miller
Deb Donston-Miller,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2012 | 10:09:00 PM
re: SXSW: Code For America Founder Rallies 'Geek Army'
This is really neat. It would be great to see Code for America focus some of their attention on public K-12 education, where needs are always high and resources very low.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard
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