Innovations in democratic governance have been and likely always will be a global phenomenon. In less than two weeks, an unprecedented bilateral codeathon between the United States and Russia held in both Washington, D.C. and Moscow, Russia will further extend the reach and collaborative flavor of the open government movement.
Needless to say, this sort of event probably wouldn't have been possible twenty years ago. The "Code 4 Country codeathon" will last between September 24 at 9AM until September 25 at 5:00 PM and will be held at American University in D.C. and across the Atlantic ocean in the offices of Yandex in Moscow. The codeathon organizers are actively encouraging creative ideas for civic applications that civic developers can work on that will make civil society stronger, solve problems for citizens and enable more government transparency.
"This is a really exciting, cutting-edge event," said Emily Parker, a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's policy planning staff who covers innovation, technology and 21st Century statecraft at the United States Department of State. "It's the first time that programmers from the U.S and Russia have joined forces in this way to address challenges of open government and transparency."
Unlike the recent EPA hackathon that was recently held at American University, this codeathon is not specifically sponsored by government, despite the understandable awareness and interest in the nation's diplomatic corps, given the transnational component. (Organizers have chosen to call this a codeathon, not a "hackathon," given continued sensitivities about the negative connotation of "hacking" in government circles.) Code4Country was convened within the framework of activities of the Bilateral Presidential Commission and represents a collaboration between the Skolkovo Foundation, Yandex, Google, civil society organizations in Russia and the United States. The codeathon will be seeded with volunteers from both Google, in the U.S., and Yandex, which will host the Russian side of the event. That involvement substantially increases the likelihood that working apps will emerge at the other end of the weekend.
Early expectations for the codeathon appear high with the open government community. "So awesome: Russian and American coders unite for an open gov and transparency hackathon. The Rocky 4 of civic coding." tweeted Mark Headd, a strong proponent of the value of open government hackathons.
The codeathon will be held simultaneously in both Washington DC and Moscow. Both codeathons will begin on Saturday morning, which means coders in Russia will have a few hours of coding before the U.S. begins, and the U.S. effort will go a few hours longer. For most of the weekend, however, the codeathons will be working simultaneously will be connected through a live stream, Skype, IM and a wiki, leveraging the tools for online collaboration that are now applied in codeathons everywhere.
Given the history of corruption in Russia, as in many other countries, there's ample room for citizens, technology and government to collaborate here. According to a 2010 Transparency International report on global corruption perceptions around the world, Russia slid from 146th place to 154th from the bottom, out of 178 countries measured. Procurement reform is a significant issue in government. The Russian government recently launched an initiatives to conduct government procurement online to increase transparency and reduce the opportunities for corruption. Such efforts are posed against tremendous challenges.
The outcomes for the codeathon looks fairly "blue sky" at the moment. Code4Country is open to both mobile and web-based apps. There are already problem definitions going up at the Code4Country website which could include either direction. Organizers are actively seeking creative ideas and input about how to increase transparency and openness in their communities from civil society, NGOs, media, and citizens.
There's considerable context for the codeathon. From Kenya to Brazil to British Columbia, new laws and platforms are giving citizens new means to ask for, demand or simply create greater government transparency. Technology has dramatically changed the way that government, citizens and civil society can share information, hold government accountable or, crucially, donate their skills. Russia already has notable examples of open government platforms, like OpenGovData.ru, Russian-Fires.ru, Streetjournal.ru, and Datagov.ru that come from non-government and non-profit projects. 21st century ideas require 21st century models of collaboration.
This codeathon could provide an important model for other countries analyze and potentially adopt, along with producing prototypes for apps that could have an even broader impact. Follow the @Code4Country Twitter account for more details going forward.