We spend a lot of time at Code for America, well…coding. This is based on our belief that writing software is a more direct path to change than writing white papers.
But we also understand that not all of our apps will stand the test of time, and that the lasting effects of our work might be harder to quantify: new, web-oriented job titles in City Hall; improved communications between citizens and government; increased tolerance to public sector innovation and risk.
Acknowledging that software is not an end in itself leads to important questions about the goals of our work and about the alternative means of achieving those goals: civic hack-athons get developers engaged with local governments (Apps for Detroit attracted 60 developers and prompted the Mayor’s Office to open up five new datasets); policy work gets city officials thinking about new ways to tackle civic problems (the Summer Interns’ Open Impact campaign had its second signatory today).
If these methods turn out to be equally effective, how should we divide our time? Should we spend all day coding or should we mobilize others to do so? Should we build our own apps or should we redeploy existing software? And even when we’re coding, should we focus on fewer, production-ready projects, or should we cast a wide net by building “MVP” prototypes?
In the midst of recent conversations around these and other questions, I received an email from Carl Allen of Boston Public Schools. Carl was hired as the Program Director for Data Reporting and Analytics during our engagement with the City last year; he was promoted to Transportation Director after we left. Carl was extremely supportive of our work and is the kind of tech-savvy innovator that Code for America hopes to see rise to positions of authority in government.
Carl was writing to let us know that one of our 2011 projects — Where’s My School Bus — had been selected for an RFP (“request for proposals”). This is exciting news on many levels: not only is it Code for America’s first follow-on RFP (which proves that cities will maintain our projects after the Code for America engagement ends), but Where’s My School Bus is perhaps the least likely app to get an RFP. We built the prototype over a long weekend!
The idea for Where’s My School Bus came out of interviews with Boston Public Schools officials where we learned about the “snowpocalypse” of 2010 when thousands of parents called the Boston Public Schools (BPS) hotline to find out the location and ETA of their child’s school bus. BPS administrators answered the question by finding the parent’s bus in the bus management system, and then relaying the information over the phone. This struck us as a broken workflow and got us asking questions: which vendor provided the bus management system? Did they have an API? Could we get them on the phone right now? After a couple of boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and a little bit of arm twisting, we were on the phone with the vendor. Seventy two hours later, we had a functional app. It was a classic example of a “quick-win” project, and it was also — explicitly — a means to an end: our main project was an educational API and we needed to convince the school department that they should open up their data. We hoped a cool mobile app with school bus locations would help to make our case.
With the issuance of the formal RFP, what was once a means to an end has become an end in itself: far from being a throw-away prototype, Where’s My School Bus proves that cities will see the value in Code for America’s projects and carry them forward. It also shows that Code for America’s goals can, in fact, be accomplished concurrently:
✓ New, tech-savvy people in government (though we probably don’t get too much credit for this!)
✓ Improved communications between residents and government
✓ Increased tolerance to public sector innovation and risk
✓ Production software maintained by the City
The Where’s My School Bus RFP demonstrates that Code for America apps can serve both as ends and means and that our engagement with cities can generate happily unexpected results.