As I was packing up my work notes, thumb drives, and books a few weekends ago to fly back home, and consequently being flooded with memories of this year, I also began thinking – who is going to read a blog post that I write about my closing thoughts of my fellowship. I’m not a notable internet technology personality, or journalist or entrepreneur. But, I am an everyday American who wanted to do something for their country by using my technical skills. Maybe there’s someone else like me who might read this. Because above all, I want to communicate that the times are changing, and at least through technology, I understand now how average Americans can get more involved in their government.
I was an American who felt isolated of the government world. I paid taxes from various jobs in the private sector; I voted; I went to law school with government loans, and became a member of the Illinois, and D.C. bar, and at least from that I understood the judicial system. But how cities worked, the struggles they face, the people that work in them and their stories, and their vision of how to improve their organizations – that was all completely foreign to me.
My perceptions of government, truth be known, were generally negative. Before Code for America, I’d often feel very bitter taking the metro to work on a Federal holiday, to work another long day to get in my billable hours at the law firm. Everyday, I’d hear sensational headlines about wasted tax dollars, disaffected citizens, and slain troops. On days I drove to work, I’d often sit in traffic for hours as some government motorcade made a mess out of downtown D.C. And I felt powerless to change any of it, until I heard about Code for America.
During the month of January during my fellowship I was seemingly airdropped into this civic technology buzzword nightmare. But, I took lots of notes, and listened as hard as I could. “Platform,” “Wiki,” “API,” “open data,” “citizen engagement,” and “transparency.” And I heard about all these books that civic minded people read and TED talks and conferences people had been to.
Then, in February, I talked to government people – well not right away. That was my first taste of politics. What was once viewed as a worthy partnership by the former city administration was now being scrutinized by the new administration as a venture that might have to be cut. So, then I felt again, like I was the outsider.
It struck me later on in the month of February as I was sitting at my desk in Big Window Labs, our gracious host that month, that there was something poetic about the view out the “little window” in the back. In the Petworth neighborhood, barred windows are still the décor de jure, but peering between them, I saw all these vibrant different colored row homes – diverse but all put together in the same place, just trying to get by in this rough neighborhood. And there I was right with them – maybe we didn’t have “official” support, but we had community.
Discovering this community was the greatest thrill during the month of February. We started talking to federal people, people in New York, non-profit people, people in academia, entrepreneurial people. We heard stories that made sense of the low-hanging fruit open data citizen engagement transparency theories we heard in January. We heard passion and concern and appreciation for our efforts to research how government software and web applications could be reused to save money. I gained a new perspective on my former belief of being an outsider – citizens are never really “outsiders” to their governments; rather, sometimes government needs its citizens to endeavor independently, in the private sector, to help bring about change.
And so, Civic Commons, the main project I worked on, came to draw many independent citizens into its fold. We have a public discuss list that anyone can join. We attracted volunteers to participate in researching various topics for our Wiki. We have a Wiki that is publicly editable. Further, we match government organizations in need of software with software that meets their needs, and vendors which can provide support services. Civic Commons is a platform for facilitating the engagement of civic techies offering software or vendor support services with governments that desperately need technical innovation at low cost.
I found out from working on a side project, SnapFresh, that not only do governments need technical innovation at low cost, but even the smallest contribution is greatly appreciated. Just the words of thanks and amazement from the San Francisco government folks we’ve worked with for SnapFresh has been a powerful motivator for me. I’m not an outsider anymore; my technical skills are having a meaningful impact on government, and I’ve found an exciting way to participate.
Speaking of San Francisco – it is a fabulous place to live and work, and I’m so glad I had this opportunity as part of being a Code for America fellow. The culture in the bay area is one of lowering barriers to participation, tolerance and diversity. I will miss this much in the more rigid, formal and classist D.C., but I know now where to find the like-minded civic techie egalitarians here. They are at the codeathons, meetups, and business incubators – open to everyone.
And it just so happens the International Open Data Hackathon D.C. is this weekend. The list of attendees includes many of the great people I met in February. Hope to see you there!