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Bridging Technology Communities

We’re two days down and on the home stretch of day three of the annual Code for America Summit, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting our upcoming 2014 Cities. One important technology question that’s occupying my thoughts as we prepare for the 2013/2014 transition is the impact of our technology choices on partner cities.

Our fellows each year own the relationship with their partner cities, and CfA empowers them to make their own technology choices as they progress through the year. Typically, these choices can diverge from those made internally by the city, and it might seem confusing to newcomers to civic tech. Ruby, Javascript, and Python are the three most popular development languages among our fellows each year, while city IT departments tend to select more traditional technologies like PHP, Java, or .Net.

Code for America often operates as a technology bridge for cities. The agile and lean approaches that we feel result in superior outcomes are typically found in dynamic language communities centered on frameworks such as Ruby on Rails, NodeJS, and Python’s Django or Flask. The communities that form around these choices value release-early-release-often processes, and the available tooling and community cultures reflects that. Code for America helps provide access to these communities through our fellowship and brigade programs. We are a bridge from cities looking for new approaches to technology to the places where those new approaches are in full flower. Importantly, that bridge works in both directions. Members of technology communities who want to put their skills and expertise to use for good take advantage of our deep connections in city government to learn about the specific kinds of efforts that they might engage. The designer, geek, and hacker communities might not otherwise know what kinds of help cities are looking for.

At this week’s Summit, each of our 2013 teams presented their work along with their government partner. Team Louisville presented their criminal justice dashboard, built on PHP and SQL Server to match the target deployment environment. Team Oakland presented their public records request application RecordTrac, built on Python and PostgreSQL and deployed to the citizens of Oakland under an official city subdomain. Team South Bend showed off CityVoice, their Rails-powered application soliciting citizen telephone feedback on blighted properties.

Our tech strategy aims to beat the rocket science out of civic technology. We hope that government can participate in open source and data communities from a position of strength, whether redeploying existing applications, developing their own, or using commercial tools to publish open data.

 

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