JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Scott Silverman and Ryan Resella, Code for America fellows, prepare a presentation to Boston City Hall and school department staff. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
BOSTON WAS lucky to be chosen as one of the five pilot cities for Code for America, a new program that pairs teams of young computer programmers with city governments to develop new technology initiatives that will serve the public good. If executed correctly, the project will not only yield useful applications for Boston residents, but also accelerate efforts to use technology to improve local government — while incorporating the concerns and insights of the public into the process.
Code for America’s name evokes that of Teach for America, a wildly popular teacher-prep program built on the same assumption that young people with fresh eyes can help make a dent in tough problems. Though based in San Francisco, the seven Code for America fellows assigned to Boston spent February getting to know the city and conducting 113 interviews with city officials.
Code for America represents a great chance for Boston to reap some useful technology at little cost. Bill Oates, the city’s chief information officer, points out that in exchange for its $225,000 contribution Boston will have a team of seven talented coders working for the city for almost a year.
The fellows, who have been asked to focus primarily on ways to improve the school system for students, parents, and teachers, are already working on a “Where’s my bus?’’ app for school buses, as well as other, bigger projects which help connect and inform the city’s students. One possibility is an app to help students find after-school activities.
The goal should be to create applications that aren’t just toys, but solve real problems for the public. For that reason, it’s vital for the city to create a better interface between the public and technology developers. Not even the best programmers can address Bostonians’ concerns without hearing from them. That’s why it’s encouraging that along with various city officials and leaders, the Code for America team met with students and parents. (In the future, the nonprofit should consider extending that contact by stationing some coders in Boston.)
This model — tech-savvy developers responding directly to public needs — should be the norm, and the rest of city government should do its part to support that ethos. There’s a precedent. MBTA riders have demonstrated the demand for applications that indicate when trains will arrive, but that’s only possible because the T released the data to make the apps work. City Hall should be as forthcoming and imaginative.
The Code for America team shouldn’t assume that everybody already has smartphones. Still, it’s encouraging that participants and City Hall alike understand the potential for technology to produce major improvements in city government.