Code for America was set up in 2009 with a mission to improve the lives of US citizens through effective use of information and communication technology. The organisation finances open-source technology projects and encourages people with the right skills to go out and help local people access government services.

Code for America: Channelling Tech Talent to Serve Local Government

The City Innovate Summit conference, which took place on June 17-18 in San Francisco, focused on initiatives which are part of the Smart City movement. Attendees were a mixture of representatives of major ICT players, including Microsoft and Salesforce, incubators such as Tumml, and government bodies. The Code for America non-profit organisation was represented by its co-founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka, who gave a ‘Micro Keynote’ speech on the Smart City development approaches being taken under the Code for America programme. ‟Our mission is to help government organisations to use technology to serve citizens better,” she told the audience, stressing: ‟We’ve tried to recruit the best designers and developers in the country to help build tomorrow’s citizen services.” The mission of Code for America is basically to help local government organisations to come up with innovative services. The non-profit has adopted a very precise strategy for doing this, which consists on the one hand of incubating startups wishing to work in this field and on the other hand encouraging people with the right skills to come on board the organisation for a limited period.

Using technology to change the way government does things

Some local governments are finding it hard to modernise and enter the digital age, mainly because the way they do things hasn’t evolved,” argued Jennifer Pahlka. Private companies all over the world are now able to harness the power of digital technology to deliver easy-to-use, highly accessible services, given the widespread use of mobile devices and especially the phenomenal growth in smartphone adoption. However, many government bodies still find it difficult to offer this kind of service, as they are stuck with practices that ‟don’t mesh with the digital era,” she underlined. In order to address this issue, Code for America has set up a Fellowship programme designed to encourage qualified people from the ICT world to work at government organisations. Fellowship participants are assigned to a city in the United States where they work to help the local bodies improve their services in one or more of four key areas. The programme runs for one year, during which Code for America Fellows are paid $50,000 to work full time on local community projects. One of the better-know alumni is Maksim Pecherskiy, a 2014 Fellow, who on completion of his programme was appointed to the permanent post of Chief Data Officer for the city of San Diego.

Dedicated startup accelerator

In addition, in order to encourage skilled people from the world of technology to come on board, Code for America has opened its own startup accelerator, which focuses on Smart City-related topics. In 2014, five companies – AmigoCloud, Munirent (renting out/exchanging heavy duty equipment), ProductBio, Seamless Doc and Trailhead Labs – went through the programme. Each firm following the programme receives a grant of $25,000 plus mentoring for four months. To be selected for the incubator programme a startup must have a viable business plan and their company culture must align with the mission of Code for America.

We want to bring government into the 21st century”, declared Jennifer Pahlka, who currently serves as Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The links between the world of information and communication technology and the general public have certainly been growing stronger in the United States. In 2011, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed US entrepreneur Rachel Haot as the city’s Chief Digital Officer. More recently Google announced its Sidewalk Labs incubator, which is designed to improve urban life.

By Arthur de Villemandy