It no longer costs political or monetary capital for citizens across the world to make themselves heard in the public sphere. But that voice isn’t enough. If we are to deliver on the promise of a world made better by greater connectivity, governments must work towards having a significant and useful online presence. Currently, the image of an unwieldy and inefficient government is exacerbated by an often dated or simply inaccessible web infrastructure.
My first project this summer is Honolulu Answers:
When you stop and think about it, online services still have a long way to go before they can rival a person on the other end of a phone. Simple tasks such as finding out how to renew your drivers license are straightforward over the phone, but require a surprising amount of problem solving and computer experience for most people. A more universally usable solution would have an input box act like a telephone receiver:
‘There’s an abandoned car at the end of my street, Siri!’
This is just one small part of a much larger effort. Code for America‘s vision is to allow citizens to have direct involvement with their own governance. This brings me to my second reason for Coding for America: to learn more about the work and activities of our governments.
It’s all too easy to conflate politics with government, and that has a damaging effect on civic engagement. As CfA’s Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka has argued before, politics is an insufficient interface to government. Politics offers the choice of “protest or leave.” There is a third option though: fix it! All citizens should have the opportunity to improve their governments, and this is only possible with an open-data model that fosters a collaborative development community.
The work done by Code for America consists of breathing life into existing government datasets. That data is sometimes difficult to get hold of, and even then it’s not something you can understand or use without aggregating it with yet more datasets, and so on. I’m reminded of this quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display …”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”
Code for America employs a great many talented people and works alongside a great many dedicated public servants. There’s a real sense of energy and positivity from the staff and fellows, which is hugely encouraging for me as I begin my career in the sector.
Finally and most importantly, the work done here has real importance to ordinary people. Government has a significant role in our lives whether we like it or not, and being involved with the actual work of governance is immensely satisfying.