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Firefighters and computer programmers don't often interact. Yet in February, representatives of both gathered in Boston's City Hall, where fire department officials explained one of their wintertime worries: snowbound fire hydrants. The coders quickly responded with a website that mapped every hydrant in the city and encouraged residents to "adopt" each one and take responsibility for shoveling them out after snowstorms.
The site is a product of Code for America, founded by Jennifer Pahlka in September 2009. She modeled the organization after Teach for America, with the goal of uniting technologists and city employees. In October, CFA selected 20 fellows, who received a modest stipend ($35,000), moved to San Francisco, and committed to a year of public service. The first class spent February talking to more than 400 city officials and residents in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The participants have returned to San Francisco, where they're writing software to tackle the civic challenges they learned about during the trip. One group's first project is a program that uses GPS data to let parents and students in Boston check whether school buses are running late.
All the software is open-source, says Pahlka. That means it's free for anyone to adopt, so if Bostonians find school-bus tracking useful, Seattle can implement it, too. The plan is to create a library of "civic software" that municipalities can draw on, helping them avoid spending money on projects that replicate others' work. That's particularly important in a time of budget crises, which are "breaking the backs of the cities," says Pahlka. "This is a new model" for saving them money.
CFA is not just about software but about pulling more technologists into public service, says Tim O'Reilly, a technology book publisher and CFA board member. "There are thousands of Silicon Valley startups doing the kind of work that the CFA fellows are doing," O'Reilly says. "There are not thousands of them doing it in the sphere of government services."
Pahlka has always been interested in public service. After graduating from Yale University, she worked at two Bay Area nonprofits, including a child welfare agency, but found them too rigid and bureaucratic. She left for the world of tech media, where she spent 15 years running conferences, including the Game Developers Conference and Web 2.0 Summit. She conceived the idea for a nonprofit corps of programmers in 2009 while organizing the first Gov 2.0 Summit, a conference focused on how technology can improve civic life. She says it "felt like an opportunity to do what I'd originally set out to do, but in a much more dynamic environment."
Graduated from Yale; spent 15 years organizing tech conferences
Code for America gives $35,000 to 20 technologists each year
Open-source "civic-software" to help solve municipal problems