“If it was up to the NIH to cure polio through a centrally directed program… You’d have the best iron lung in the world but not a polio vaccine.”
- Samuel Broder, Former Director, National Cancer Institute.
Instead of having one government agency drive the fight against polio, the NIH encouraged multiple private efforts, fostering competition and so creativity. So while the government would be focused on mitigating polio’s effects, the private sector was able to isolate its cause and create a drug to neutralize it. As Broder suggests, the government’s mode of thinking wasn’t apt for developing a cure. Since industry was able to be more creative, more experimental, and more nimble, it could both determine and answer the question the federal government wasn’t asking: How do we stop this from ever becoming a problem?
Those are the kinds of challenges government still faces today, albeit in different ways and on a different scale. Everyday, cities are forced to grapple with issues such as public safety, infrastructure, and engagement with outdated processes and technologies. This is why we think so many cities reached out to Code for America: because they wanted to reimagine the way the provide those services, they wanted us to look at their problems, ask new questions, and think of new answers.
And that’s what we’re asking our Fellows to do. It’ll be up to the Code for America Fellows to take on these challenges, design a solution, and translate it into a reality in 11 short months. And that means in small teams with big responsibilities, they’ll have to do everything from researching city services and working with local officials to designing the user experience and coding the application. In a way, for the CfA Fellows, their cities will be their startups.
Who could handle all of this? We asked a startup veteran, Lane Becker, Founder of AdaptivePath and Get Satisfaction, what he’d recommend we look for from our applicants:
Good startups don’t just need developers. A good product team has a mix of people with complementary skills that they can use to push each other forward. Developers are core, but so is having someone focused on product and project management, someone with skills in design and user experience, and also people with backgrounds in user research, business development, strategic direction, or even financial modeling. Get the most capable individuals, each with their own unique perspective on the issue at hand, and you can be sure the product that results will successfully address it.
In this sense, “Code for America” might seem a little misleading. Well it is, and it isn’t. Good code isn’t just written, it’s researched, designed, marketed, and implemented as well. That’s how good code becomes good products, and our cities need great products. Take for example two of our projects:
- Boulder County has asked us to redesign 311 services for the 21st century, and to do that, we will have to start by finding out what citizens need to report to their local government and how. Is it potholes and phones or wifi “borrowing” and Facebook? We’ll need an experienced researcher with solid interpersonal skills to interview people, collect data, and analyze tons of information to find out.
- Washington DC hopes not only to build a site to encourage the sharing of civic software — a “civic commons” — but to also create an independent organization committed to its future success. We’ll need business developers and analysts to think through everything from staffing and organizational policy to funding and sustainability; we’ll need people who know how to build an NGO from the ground up.
These are just examples of the responsibilities our Fellows will be given to illustrate that we need all hands on deck. There are many, many more challenges they’ll face — most of them, we don’t even know yet. That’s why we need your help now. On each city page (Boston, Boulder, DC, Philadelphia, Seattle), we have included a feedback widget, and we invite you to ask challenging questions you feel will need to be answered by these projects. We plan to use your thoughts in our in-person brainstorming sessions and throughout the entire cycle to make sure that we heed Broder’s advice, that as take on these big problems, we keep asking the right questions.