“A Peace Corps for Geeks? Nonprofit donates apps to cities.”

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Code for America has developed apps that have trimmed Boston’s costs for digging out fire hydrants after snow and made Philadelphia city services more accessible. The ‘Peace Corps for geeks’ is the leading edge of nonprofits looking to make government more efficient.

By Jeremiah Hall, Correspondent / November 17, 2012
San Francisco

In Boston, there’s a fire hydrant named Al.

The city, subject to heavy snowfalls, has a problem keeping fire hydrants accessible to emergency workers and wanted a creative way to recruit willing volunteers to clear the snow. To help, the city turned to a group that bills itself as a Peace Corps for Geeks.”

The San Francisco-based group, called Code for America, created an interactive, almost gamelike application that gives virtual hydrant-naming rights to the person who tends to the hydrant the most. Without the program, the city would be left with the burden of clearing the snow.

The Boston app was so successful that other cities quickly followed suit, including Honolulu, which modified the program to encourage citizens to monitor for defective tsunami warning sirens.

Code for America brings fresh eyes to cities often wedded to their own procedures, says Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. “Every system is hackable in the best sense of the word. What’s needed is a culture of entrepreneurship – one in which you try quickly and accept failure quickly if it happens.”

In tough economic and budgetary environments, cities are looking for ways to be a lot more efficient. “In some [cities] it can take a year just to open a purchase order,” says Ms. Pahlka.

The idea isn’t unique to Code for America. Here in San Francisco, a group of technology enthusiasts – many of whom were frustrated public transportation riders – convened for a 48-hour hack-athon to develop an iPad app called SMARTmuni. Their aim: Replace the pen-and-paper system of rerouting delayed buses and trolleys.

The service, championed by the nonprofit San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, is being tested by the transportation authority.

“Government is what we do together,” says Pahlka. “Yet many citizens don’t feel connected to their government and often distrust bureaucracies.” Code for America deploys fellows, or largely unpaid volunteers, with extensive backgrounds in technology.

User-experience strategist and technology designer Elizabeth Hunt was sent to Philadelphia to develop an app that gives residents simple how-to guides for accessing city services. “If you wanted to host a block party on your street, that information was not easily available before,” she says. In that example, the service she helped create combines a bit of party planning with information on navigating the many city laws and agencies involved.

Code for America still struggles with how to keep the spirit of entrepreneurship alive in a city once a project ends. “Sustainability is definitely an important aspect of every project,” says Pahlka. The group works with the city to find internal staff, look for ways to create a small business to drive the project, or even turn the project over to another nonprofit. “Eventually I’d like people to love government like they love their iPhone,” says Pahlka.

SMARTmuni Presents to SFMTA Planners

Speaking to a packed room of over 50 SFMTA employees, the SMARTmuni team introduced the pilot project to planners, engineers, and other staff during a lunchtime brown bag forum. The highlight of the presentation was walking attendees through a hands-on demo of the app. The last part of the time was set aside for Q+A, allowing ample time for insightful questions, comments, and discussion. Some of the most interesting comments were about how the iPads and the app (or another app) could be useful for planners and other office-based staff; looking for development parallels between the agency’s process for creating and launching their public-facing app (Muni+) and our experiences; and questions about what a full roll-out at the agency might entail.

Ron Conway gives SMARTmuni a Shout-Out at the Mayor’s Tech Town Hall

ConwayMayor Ed Lee invited angel investor Ron Conway to speak at the Tech Town Hall on October 23, hosted by AutoDesk.

Ron has long encouraged the San Francisco tech community to get involved with government. SMARTmuni is one of the companies supported by his 501c6 organization, sf.citi.

To a packed room, Ron described the SMARTmuni project’s goals to improve public transit in San Francisco and sf.citi’s role in making it possible for the team to work together with SFMTA to continue to develop the pilot.

Read more: www.sfciti.com

Soft Deployment Update – 10/24/2012

giants-champsThe SFMTA had a soft test deployment of the SMARTmuni app on the evening of October 24th, which was Game 1 of the World Series. Nine individuals used our application to monitor and respond to incidents affecting MUNI’s rail system. Among those participating included staff from the Operations and Central Control Room and Line Management Center, field inspectors, managers, and the SMARTmuni team. The soft launch was a success – inspectors in the field had more information than they would have had otherwise, and many lessons were learned that have been useful as we continue to refine the application. The SMARTmuni team hopes to have soft test deployments for diesel and trolley buses within the next week or two.

SMARTmuni Presents at the American Planning Association Conference

APA CA logoThe California chapter of the American Planning Association invited the SMARTmuni team to present at their 2012 Annual Conference in Rancho Mirage on October 23rd.

Project Director Judy van Soldt was part of a panel entitled, “Drivers of Change in Urban Mobility: Technology, Management and Planning.”

SMARTmuni represents both a traditional and a futuristic solution to transit system management. Existing infrastructure in this 100 year old agency has been managed using clipboards, pencils and an overtaxed two-way radio system. Paper tags are passed hand-to-hand as an issue develops; often multiple radio or mobile phone conversations are required to resolve them.  Implementing the app doesn’t require expensive new physical infrastructure or complicated new work relationships. Inspectors, dispatchers and line managers use SMARTmuni to work together, resolving issues in real time.

The SFMTA – a traditional organization in many ways – is enthusiastically making a futurist’s leap.