Civic Hacktivism Brings the Networked Economy to Citizens

Anyone who has ever stood in line to obtain human services, applied for a building permit, or lost a tire in pothole understands the frustration of dealing with government bureaucracy. But in the digital age, many people have realized it doesn’t have to be this way.

This is the idea behind Code for America, a worldwide organization determined to replace slow, faceless government with fast, people-oriented solutions.

Through fellowships and volunteer groups, Code for America solves civic problems by using technology. The organization connects a network of technologists, citizens, and governments in 31 cities across the United States, and also partners with organizations in Japan, Mexico, and Poland. “Brigades” share their expertise and work with local governments and community organizations to tackle a variety of issues. Civic “hackathons” actively promote group participation, generating ideas and developing apps that support everything from citizen engagement to criminal justice and public health. In addition, the Civic Startups program mentors entrepreneurs in navigating the government procurement process and building sustainable businesses.

In many ways, Code for America is a manifestation of what’s possible in the networked economy as everything shifts from hierarchical to decentralized.

“We’re helping reshape government from top-down to collaborative,” says Catherine Bracy, Director of Community Organizing at Code for America.  “Networks and technology have immense power to change the way that government is practiced. We can help lead into this world where governments are open by default, and citizens have much more opportunities to participate beyond voting, signing petitions, and protesting. They can actually reach into areas and build parts of government to address problems that citizens could never touch before.”

Creating a space for innovation between groups that don’t necessarily talk to each other is central to Code for America’s purpose. Indeed, partnerships with the private business sector are crucial to the organization’s success. For example, SAP recently announced its sponsorship of the Code for America Brigade with plans to share the company’s technology and innovation with thousands of developers worldwide.

“As an organization, we are just one member of a larger, energized ecosystem made of up not only non-profits and non-government organizations like us, but entrepreneurs and established companies like SAP,” says Code for America’s Brady. “We’re excited to be an active member with everyone in this community, including SAP and its connections worldwide. SAP has a unique perspective on what it takes to accomplish large-scale innovation.”

Apps Spark Citizen Engagement and Innovation Across Geographies

While brigades focus on applying technology to solve the unique problems of local areas, solutions are also being repurposed in other places with similar geographies. This is the case with an app developed with partners from Code for the Caribbean to help farmers in Jamaica protect against theft of their crops and livestock. Besides saving millions lost to the Jamaican economy every year, the United Nations is interested in expanding the information to a global database that could help farmers in other agriculturally based countries.

Another leader in civic innovation that has partnered with Code for America is Mexico City. With a population of approximately 20 million, Mexico City is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. As the capital of a country with a growing middle class, its institutions need to evolve with the changing economy. “Mexico has one of the most robust civic hacker communities in the world. We received more applications per capita for their program than the United States. They are building tools that for the first time are putting the power of data in the hands of citizens,” says Bracy.

Among the results to date is the Traxi app that allows citizens to monitor the safety of taxis before accepting a ride. The real-time app tracks data to identify reputable taxis based on parameters such as safety code violations or drivers who take longer routes than necessary.

According to Bracy, the program in Mexico City reflects the growing open government data movement. “In many places like Mexico City, we’re seeing citizens collecting and producing data.  This is generating a two-way production stream of data being created by citizens and mashed up with other official government data that’s shared through open data policies for everyone to use.”

Despite functioning across dramatically different political environments worldwide, Code for America’s core idea has remained consistently compelling. In bringing together public and private sectors, this organization is showing citizens how they can have a much stronger voice in government operations as the networked economy emerges. After all, there are many innovators out the government who want to help fix things. This is one channel to find better ways to do things instead of just being frustrated.

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