Code for America continues its annual search for the brightest and most innovative developers and designers to join the ranks of the prestigious Code for America Fellowship Program. Applications are due July 15. The Fellowship provides developers with an 11-month program, partly based on site in participating cities and partly based at Code for America’s startup hub in San Francisco. ProgrammableWeb spoke with Nicole Neditch, fellowship director, and 2014 Fellow Danny Whalen.
Applications for the 2015 Code for America Fellowship program are open until July 15. (Source: Code for America)
“Code for America helps citizens and government to harness technology. We build trust between communities and governments, and help make government processes more efficient and effective,” Neditch says. “The Fellowship is our flagship program. We launched in 2010 and have had 102 fellows working in 32 local governments. We’re currently recruiting for 2015. We’re looking for 30 more fellows, to work with 10 local governments across the States.”
The Fellowship program includes a regular travel budget to meet with the city partner, and Fellows commence the program with a month-long intensive in the corresponding city, before being stationed alongside other fellows at Code for America’s San Francisco base.
Code for America’s Fellowship Legacy
Products built out of Code for America have the potential to create a long-term impact in the cities and communities where fellows are located. APIs have played an essential part in the types of projects that are created and in how developers have helped cities connect various data systems and workflows both internally and when working with communities.
Neditch describes one initiative from 2013 that has fundamentally changed San Francisco’s implementation of its food stamps benefit program:
Last year, we worked with San Francisco’s Human Services Agency (HSA). Our fellows were embedded within the City Council and really understood what it was like using the food stamp program. One of the things they noticed was that people were frequently falling off the food stamps program. So you can imagine: mothers with kids in grocery stores, swiping their cards and then learning they didn’t have any benefits. Our fellows found that massive documentation was being sent to people, but people were moving frequently or getting the letters and not really understanding what they meant. Not only was it causing hardship for these families, but it was also hard for the city government, because every time they fell off the system, there would be an arduous process to get them back on.
Our fellows researched how people were receiving their benefits information. Many didn’t have access to the Internet but they were text messaging quite frequently so we did research to see if HSA could send text messages to remind people to keep up with their benefits. So we worked a lot on the policies so that HSA could actually change their policies so they could send texts. They were the first to do so in the U.S. So it boils down to also knowing how to implement these technologies. There is a lot of process change, a lot of policy change required to show the city governments what is possible.
As a result of this partnership, we have managed to maintain several thousand people on the system. It has also created a real interest in the research design process and now they have created a user experience design shop within the city of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency so they can tackle future problems by looking at user needs. So we are seeing a lot of sustainable change.
For many previous Fellowship alums, the program has been a springboard to working in startups. Fellows have been inspired to take an entrepreneurial approach and after their one-year stint have gone on to develop a new generation of civic-focused tools. OpenPlans, Civic Insight, LocalData, Versa and AltSchool are all led by, or have the key involvement of, former Code for America fellows.
Each of these initiatives, based on knowledge learned through the Code for America Fellowship program, uses APIs to create a better flow of citizen data and community feedback into policy decision-making processes, or channel user feedback via APIs into improved local analysis and planning.
Insight Into City Policy, Planning and Strategy
Working on projects in the current Fellowship round, 2014 Fellow Whalen has learned a lot about the inner machinations of policymaking in government.
Twyla McDermott, corporate IT program manager for Charlotte, N.C.; City Manager Ron Carlee; and 2014 Charlotte Fellows Andrew Douglass and Danny Whalen discuss how to engage with citizens and use tech to advance city goals. (Photo courtesy of Code for America)
“The time scale is the thing that jumped out at me,” Whalen admits about working with local governments. “It takes time to build consensus to push policy through, and because the time frames are really long, we often have to work within the existing policy. For example, in Charlotte, N.C., they are working on internal data policies, and we were able to go over that with them in February and that has been ongoing to help build the governance behind that process."
Personally, I try to look at these longer time frames as additional constraints on the collaboration project work we do. So I try and take it from an engineering perspective and look at the constraints that are controllable and those that aren’t. As a result we need to have many balls rolling.
Even outside of our work with open data, it is really important to understand the needs and wants of all the stakeholders, and that is not always apparent. We try to understand the history of the situation, so we can understand where groups are coming from, and you see that a lot both interdepartmentally and intercounty.
I’ve had a really great time in Charlotte so far. We have gotten a lot of Southern hospitality, and from our city partners in particular, Twyla McDermott (corporate IT program manager at city of Charlotte) and Tom Warshauer (manager of community engagement for neighborhood and business services at city of Charlotte).
Whalen sees his own participation in the program as both inspiring and transformative:
We work with some really amazing people. It has been a pleasure to see public servants in action and to see how important it is to them that we engage with the community in meaningful ways. When we started this project, the city and the county made a real business case about needing to speak with communities.
I come from a software consulting program, where I was mostly working with small businesses on internal tools and with startups. Yes, that was an engineering role, but the products I worked with, there was no social inclination to them and that was less rewarding. I have made a conscious effort to move into this area. I really like working on these projects — projects that have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.
How to Apply
Developers, designers and business analysts with an interest in applying for the program can take the following steps: