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In late 2009 Jen Pahlka came to meet with us about a novel idea to encourage technology experts to commit a year of service to communities in need of new solutions. We were so compelled by the idea that we committed on the spot to help turn it into a reality. And now, more than a year later we could not be more thrilled that Code for America (CfA) has launched with 20 fellows serving four cities.
The model, inspired in part by Teach for America, is surprisingly simple…find the best and brightest web developers looking to use their skills to make a difference and willing to do so on a modest stipend. Then find cities that are serious about identifying challenges that can benefit from a new, technology-based solution (think something like www.seeclickfix.com). Now, make the match, provide the highest quality professional development and training, make sure the city is ready for success, stir for eleven months and see what happens.
You can learn more about the finer details of the organization by watching the video below, perusing the organization’s website or reading one of the many favorable write-ups in places like Fast Company, but some of my favorite aspects of the components of the program are...
- It’s backed by some of the best-- Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly Media and Web/Gov 2.0) is a founding board member, Clay Shirkey is on the advisory board, and founding funders include innovative philanthropies like the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Rockefeller Foundation, Google and, oh, us too.
- Collaboration is key and taken seriously-- developers work in teams of five with their city partners and after getting grounded in their cities (Boston, MA, District of Columbia, Philadelphia, PA and Seattle, WA) for a month they come back to work together in their San Francisco office (the former FlipCam space provided by Cisco – good vibes) on solutions. Solutions that work are made available for other cities to replicate.
- Learning never stops-- Fellows start with a 30-day crash course on the intersection of government and technology, which is peppered with presentations from the biggest names in the 2.0 space, already including people like Tim O’Reilly, Lesa Mitchell from the Kauffman Foundation, Danielle Morrill from Startup Weekend and Twilio, and Eric Ries the creator of the Lean Startup Methodology. The learning and speakers will keep coming when the fellows come back from 30 days in their cities.
Interview with one of the Fellows, Erik Michael-Ober
Yesterday, I had the chance to connect with Erik Michael-Ober (@sferik), one of the inaugural Fellows to find out his hopes for Code For America and his inspiration for getting involved. Erik is a Woodstock, NY born and raised software developer and entrepreneur from San Francisco, who started out in computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University but ended up as a Public Policy major. He founded and served as a CTO of a couple start-ups that raised more than $4.5 million in venture capital; this guy is no basement hacker.
Erik was drawn to CfA for the same reason he moved from computer engineering to policy, he loves technology but wants to make a difference more. Code for America was the perfect opportunity for him to combine his passions for technology and government while learning about the inner workings of government at the same time.
Erik told me that local governments need efforts like Code for America, because they tend to be risk averse and worried about making mistakes, whereas people with start-up mentalities thrive off of making and learning from mistakes and can disrupt the status quo. In fact, when I joked with Erik about feeling pressure to live up to the success of the former occupants of their office space, FlipCam, Erik quickly shared that there was no added pressure because almost any office space in that part of San Francisco was likely the home of hundreds of companies who have both had wild successes and failures.
For Erik, who is presently “overwhelmed by inspiration” from the steady stream of speakers and supporters, success will be seen in many ways…living up to the high expectations of the CfA founders and supporters, coming up with solutions that work and that others can use, and coming out on the other end as someone who can easily navigate government and technology. But, what Erik says is at the top of his hopes list for Code For America is that one day communities are more active and engaged and that anyone with a skill knows that they can – and how they can – contribute to making their government become more transparent, efficient, and participatory.
We agree with Erik and that’s exactly why were one of the first to be on board with Code for America…because like City Year’s efforts to use service as a vehicle to knock down the high school dropout crisis, or Public Allies’ leveraging of service to build a pipeline of strong, diverse leaders for underserved communities, we know that volunteering, service, people power (whatever you call it) is at its best when it’s not just doing nice, periodic projects but fundamentally tied to addressing our nation’s most pressing problems.
So, hats off to Code for America, Erik and his fellow fellows, and all the cities involved! We’ll be reading their plentiful blog updates and watching closely for civic innovations that will shift the landscape in cities nationwide.