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What Can Code for America Do for Austin?

An image of Adopt a Hydrant, an app where citizens can volunteer to maintain important city infrastructure.
Image courtesy
An image of Adopt a Hydrant, an app where citizens can volunteer to maintain important city infrastructure.

Technology is an increasingly inseparable part of everyone’s life. A recent report noted the number of mobile devices on Planet Earth will exceed its population by the end of the year.

But how can people and governments use this change for good? (It’s got to be for more than playing with disgruntled virtual birds, right?) Code for America may have some answers.

Three Code for America volunteers came to City Hall yesterday:  Joe Merante, Emily Wright Moore, and Aurelio Tinio. What is Code for America? It’s “a new kind of public service,” Tinio told the City Council’s Emerging Technology and Telecommunications Committee. Essentially, Code for America fellows work with citizens and governments in select cities to develop civic-minded applications. The organization describes its apps’ features on its website:

1) They are web applications – think Facebook, Yelp, Zillow, or Picnik; 2) They will enable cities to connect with their constituents in ways that reduce administrative costs and engage citizens more effectively; 3) They support the move toward transparency and collaboration; 4) and finally, they are shareable – which means that an application built for one city can be used by any other city.

Austin’s Code for America fellows are currently midway through a five-week “residency period,” where they’re soliciting suggestions for apps, and learning about issues Austin faces. “The remainder of the year consists of distilling all those ideas, and narrowing it down to like one main project, or a couple small projects we can work on,” Tinio says. By mid-April, the team hopes to have a “minimum viable product” – a bare-bones, beta version of the app. Once they have that, the team will “constantly iterate on it throughout the year.”

So what would Austin’s Code for America app look like? The fellows listed four examples of 2011 work in other cities we can learn from:

  • Open 311 Dashboard:  An online update to a city’s 311 call system used to report non-emergency issues like graffiti, potholes and code violations, “Using a mobile device or a computer, someone can enter information (ideally with a photo) about a problem at a given location. This report is then routed to the relevant authority to address the problem. What’s different from a traditional 311 report is that this information is available for anyone to see and it allows anyone to contribute more information.”
  • Discover BPS: Utilizing data from the Boston public school system, this app lets parents search available schools by area, and even rank schools using metrics like walkability, user-reviews and more.  
  • MuralApp: Philadelphia is famous for its numerous public murals, and this location based app acts as a type of tour guide, alerting users to nearby works, providing information on artists, and more.
  • Adopt a Hydrant: “In the midst of winter snowstorms, buried hydrants cause dangerous delays in the ability of fire fighters to respond to fire emergencies,” this app’s website states. “This map-based web app allows individuals, small businesses, and community organizations to volunteer to be responsible for shoveling out specific hydrants.” Tinio noted the app has since been tweaked for adoption in Chicago as “Adopt a Sidewalk,” where volunteers can sign up to de-ice sidewalks. And while Honolulu doesn’t get much in the way of snow, the app is used there to make sure tsunami sirens are in proper working condition.

It’s easy to see how some of these apps could be adopted for use in Austin – and with Code for America’s reliance on freely-shared, open source tech, they may well be. But just what Austin’s fellows develop for the community is still in the planning stages. You can get an idea of what they’re up to on Feb. 25, as the team participates in “Code Across America ATX: A Civic Innovation Codeathon.”

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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