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Code for America Meets Austin

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It's hard to believe my team has been in Austin for nearly four weeks already. As part of the 2012 Code for America Fellowship program, we're nearing the end of our residency: five weeks of interviews, meetings, events and information gathering. Code for America is a non-profit based in San Francisco that partners teams of developers and designer with cities around the country to encourage innovation in government and civic engagement.

With each successive meeting, we're getting closer to identifying the issues we'll tackle this year. Whether defined in terms of software, data, or overall transparency, it's clear that Austin has embraced citizens' expectations of open government. Though I've always been interested in technology and government, it wasn't until working on the Peer to Patent project and later at Creative Commons that it all began to come together. As the lines between my interests continued to blur, the opportunity at Code for America presented itself.

Why Open Data?
In Austin, the city has demonstrated its commitment to open. We hope to get things closer to open by default. Austin rebuilt its website using Drupal, an open source content management system. Departments do a terrific job of balancing public demands with the time, resource, and technology constraints in place. Whether that's telling the stories of what works, giving presentations about a "Lean Startup" approach to projects, demonstrating apps the cool kids are using, or simply listening for signals, we're here to change things.

We hope to further Austin's proactive approach to the release of public information. Austin finished 2011 with the launch of data.austintexas.gov and approval of a resolution (Item 74) affirming the City Council's commitment to open government. As the elements of an Open Data Framework come together, there are examples from other cities and many in the community who can provide guidance on the process. We hope to help in any way we can. Here's a recent example from Raleigh, N.C. For example, why not respond to public information requests with a link to the dataset on the portal rather than just a one-off reply? The software development principle of DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) guides us here. We're here to make sure the technical and cultural turning point goes the right way.

Last Saturday, February 25, we hosted an event to build apps and visualizations using this information -- and to bring together the many community members and city staffers we have connected with so far. Nationwide, the number of government APIs is growing fast. Imagine "big data" meetup groups in Austin using city datasets to practice their skills and find trends, or mash up city data with other datasets. Even if the data isn't that clean, interested developers will polish it and return it. Let's get more of this rocket fuel for innovation in the hands of developers. That's one of many reasons Code Across America -- A Week of Civic Innovation is happening right now.

Listening to Everyone
Before coming to Austin, we spent a lot of time thinking about who our "client" is. Are we working for the city? The citizens? Everyone? Rapid iteration and constant feedback help ensure that it's usefulness, not documentation, that drives our process. How to do that while addressing the digital divide? How to avoid one voice drowning out the others? That's something we all need to figure out. We also want citizens to enjoy themselves and connect. For example, my teammates put together a virtual gallery for the People's Gallery art show at City Hall, and we'll be encouraging visitors to tweet their comments for display on monitors during the event.

The Civic Technology Community
Followers of the civic technology space are familiar with events like Random Hacks of Kindness, CityCamps, or the Summer of Smart. What does it all mean? In sum, it's the emergence of a new class of concerned citizen, armed with a passion for civic engagement and the technological skills to make it happen. The software world is becoming increasingly aware of its opportunity to improve daily life and civic awareness, not just compete for "the next big thing." Not that there's anything wrong with the latter. Indeed, the line is disappearing as traditional software development processes and models reveal their stresses in a highly networked environment.

By encouraging the community to participate in government, exposing more public data and guiding the entire process, we can make sure that self-selected experts and interested citizens can help lead the way. For me, that's just the beginning of The Code for America Effect.

This article is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY 3.0 License.

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