Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Storming the City Walls with Code for America

Last year, I wrote about a civic hacking event that took place in Philadelphia at the office of Azavea.

The event last year was organized by the team of Code for America fellows working for the year in Philadelphia. Exactly one year to the day later, the latest group of fellows working in Philadelphia held another civic hackathon – also at the offices of Azavea, in the city’s Callowhill neighborhood.

I described my observations at last year’s event this way:

“What I was most impressed with was the ability of this event to highlight to those that were there what is truly possible when government data is open to and usable by developers. It provided an object lesson for all those there in the true potential of civic hacking…

Having the Code for America fellows in Philadelphia, and having them essentially kick start civic coding using city data, has accelerated the awareness of what is possible. I think people would have achieved the awareness that was realized yesterday eventually, but the CfA fellows got people there sooner.

I call it “the CfA Effect.” It was pretty cool to see first hand.”

The event this past Saturday provided a good opportunity to gauge the changes that have occurred in Philadelphia since the city embraced open data with gusto under Mayor Michael Nutter, and welcomed it’s first class of Code for America fellows.

Based on what I saw at this most recent event, the “CfA Effect” has firmly taken hold in Philadelphia – the philosophy of open government and civic hacking has taken root with a wide array of city officials and employees, many of whom showed up at (and even participated in) the most recent event at Azavea.

Mayor Michael Nutter

As someone who has organized civic hackathons in the past, one of the biggest challenges I have faced is getting city officials to understand the civic hacking culture, and to understand the goals of a civic hacking event.

There are a surprisingly large number of city officials in Philadelphia who get it. As many as a dozen city officials and employees attended the hackathon this past Saturday – some to pitch problem statements to the hackers in attendance, some to actually participate in the hacking.

And one – their boss – Mayor Michael Nutter stopped by to see first hand what people were building at the event.

Philadelphia’s Mayor spent the better part of an hour at the event, visting with each team and – from what I could hear – thanking each one for their efforts that day.

That is about as high a compliment as I think can be paid to the efforts of Code for America in general, and in the City of Philadelphia in particular.

Code for America has helped civic hackers storm the city walls (in a good way). City officials, up to and including the Mayor, now look at open data and civic hacking differently – as a way for the city to collaborate with the broader technology community and civic activists to build innovative solutions.

I still like to call it “the CfA Effect,” and I never get tired of seeing it in action.

Note – photo courtesy of Flickr user sidetracked.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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