Code for America and SF Open Data, a new way to think public service

By Basile Bouquet and Pierrick Bouffaron – Consulate of France in San Francisco

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Based in the heart of San Francisco, Code for America is a unique organization in its own right giving shape to the innovative concept of Civic Technologies. Code for America is based on the dynamic business world’s need to meet the challenges that municipalities will face. A nonprofit association, Code for America, was created in 2009 by the initiative of Jennifer Pahlka, a young and dynamic entrepreneur who graduated from Yale.

Its purpose? To harness the creativity of developers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and to improve the accessibility and quality of public services. The creation of mobile applications and web platforms will facilitate the lives of citizens with the development of tools used to manage and analyze public data.

The organization is therefore committed to stimulating initiatives in the field of web development which has been relegated to the private sector for a long time. With increased funding (including public funding, but also private foundations and companies like Google), Code for America has gradually morphed into a true citizen incubator. Young talent and startups are offered a place for reflection and dialogue with professionals, funding of up to $20,000, legal protection and easy access to partnerships in the public sphere.

This citizen solicitation is not trivial, because the number of people who will be living in urban areas by 2030 is estimated to be over five billion. In order to cope with this growing urbanization the integration of digital technologies is vital for public institutions in order to improve social life and adapt infrastructure to the challenges of the city of tomorrow. The initiative has in fact received the full support of the city of San Francisco. At the inauguration of Code forAmerica, Ed Lee, the Mayor of SF,  emphasized the role of Silicon Valley as the global center of  innovation:”The challenge now is to offer these disruptive technologies to Government and public services to make our institutions more effective and accountable, and make San Francisco the first 2.0.city “.

The structure of  Code for America is heavily based on partnerships between developers, contractors, entrepreuneurs, and municipalities. In 2011 and 2012, the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Austin, Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans volunteered. The association also sponsors hackathons, collective competitions in which professionals from various backgrounds – programmers, designers, planners or sociologists – work collaboratively to develop innovative applications. The most innovative lead to the creation of startups. When snowstorms hit Boston last year, the developers of Code for America, for example, created a mobile application that allowed concerned parents to monitor their children’s bus route  in real time. Even if ideas are sometimes simple, they are nonetheless effective: using the collective power of the web and goodwill citizens, cities can drastically reduce their operating costs, a welcome savings in these times of fiscal scarcity.

What is the origin of the data used? Developed applications are generally based on the massive amounts of information stored by municipalities in recent decades. Digitized and used to develop web tools in the public’s interest, these data help optimize the management of cities, making them more reliable, responsive, efficient and economic. The second edition of the CaFFEET (CaliforniaFrance Forum on Energy EfficiencyTechnologies) conference, held on November 5th and 6th, 2012 and jointly organized by EDF, the scientific service of the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, and the University of Berkeley has deciphered the challenges and ambitions inherent in the city of tomorrow, underlining the importance of access to information in this paradigm. In this context, the city of San Francisco has free access to many public data on servers, viewable in multiple formats. Transportation, energy, buildings, socio-economic statistics: most of the major topics relating to the development and urban planning are also available. So that the various departments in the city follow this dynamic with common standards, Jay Nath was appointed as Director of Innovation. The department’s role is also to install new technology in the administration. The initiative, SF Open Data, works towards the construction and online availibility of robust  “citizens” databases. The goal is to stimulate innovation, improve access to information and to participate in the optimization of governmental structures.

In facilitating access to public data, the City of San Francisco has set four major goals: stimulate job creation through innovative startups, advocate the efficiency of institutional structures, enhance the sense of citizenship by engaging people on public issues and improve the relationship between the governer and the governed favoring a policy of transparency. In the medium term, the city of San Francisco wants sustainable development of Open Data, all while beginning to integrate private data of volonteer citizens.

The revolution of Open Data has started. It seems logical that the Silicon Valley would have a leading role in this conquest. Headquartered in San Francisco, Code for America, is committed to spreading to other U.S. cities, or to exporting the concept abroad, especially in Europe and France.

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