Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

The Civic App That Changed My Life

It’s odd to describe something that seems old, and small, and obsolete as being life changing. But that’s how I feel about a simple application that I worked on exactly 15 years ago today.

In April of 2008, I was about 4 years removed from my last job in government. I had worked for my entire professional career up until then in state government (in New York and Delaware), and left to become a professional software developer. But by 2008, I was feeling far removed from the mission and purpose of public service and was looking for a way to make a difference again.

The open data movement was in it’s early stages and I was excited about the possibility of data to change not only the way that governments worked, but the way governments worked with technologists and software developers outside of the bureaucracy. It felt like a transformational time.

So, for Earth Day 2008 I worked on a small civic application that let people use their phones to find E85 and Bio-diesel fuel stations in their state. I spent a weekend getting my app to work, posted the code for my app on my (at the time) website, and wrote a blog post about it. The code for my simple app is long since lost – I didn’t become an avid GitHub user until after that time – and I haven’t touched the technologies I used to build it in well over a decade. Social media was nascent at the time, so beyond myself, some of my co-workers, and a vanishingly small number of subscribers to my blog, I doubt anyone even knew about it.

And yet, 15 years later when I look back, that seems like an important moment for me. I’ve been working on, and writing about, civic technology ever since then. I’ve written hundreds of blog posts, and coded dozens of applications. My trip has taken my through the City of Philadelphia as it’s first Chief Data Officer, and into the Federal Government for a tour of duty with 18F. I’ve had the chance to work with some amazing people on some important problems.

In 2008, I was looking for a way to make an impact again after leaving government several years before. Civic Hacking gave me a way to do that. That janky little app I cobbled together for Earth Day 2008 turned out to be a skeleton key, opening up innumerable doors for me and helping to find my way back to making an impact and improving the way that government works.

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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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