Introducing the Civic Digital Fellowship
Neel Mehta

Civic Coding Is Crazy Cool

I wish my coding skills were crazy cool. :( But I spend way more time studying economics than coding.

When you go to the grocery store… do you put every product in your shopping cart? Of course not. All the products don’t equally match your preferences. And even though there are a lot of products that do match your preferences… your money is limited! So logically you have to prioritize. You endeavor to purchase the products that are most important to you.

Shoppers use their money to provide specific and substantial feedback on the store’s products. In economic terms, the order (relative importance) of the products is determined by the Invisible Hand (IH).

Here’s what it says on your homepage

We’re a rebel alliance of young people using technology for social good. We’re not coding to make the next food delivery app. We’re coding to battle the tough problems in government, education, public health, and the like. We’re coding to make the world a little bit better. We’re Coding it Forward.

Like my title says, civic coding is crazy cool! It’s really awesome to use your time and talent to solve tough public problems.

But, how can you be sure that you’re using your time and talent to solve the biggest public problems? Unlike the grocery store, the public sector isn’t a market. You don’t get to use your tax dollars to signal the value of public goods. The non-profit sector, on the other hand, is a market… but funding is limited because well… that’s the point of forcing people to pay taxes.

Personally, I was just finishing my junior year at UCLA when, thanks to stop-loss, the government yanked me from school and sent me to Afghanistan for a year. I ended up coding something that the Army thought was useful enough that they wanted to send me to Iraq to create the same thing. But I said “no thanks” because by then I was completely burnt out from battling the bureaucratic bullshit.

Do you think that the Visible Hand (VH) is truly better than the IH at putting society’s talent to its most valuable uses? I’m guessing that you probably haven’t spent nearly as much time thinking about this question as I have.

But from my perspective, there’s no bigger problem than figuring out whether the VH or the IH is better at determining the order (relative importance) of problems.

Here’s your blog. I can see your latest entries… but I can’t see your most valuable entries. The order (relative importance) of your blog entries is determined by the Chronological Hand (CH). Of course it’s useful to be able to see your latest content… but wouldn’t it be beneficial if I could also see your most valuable content?

Imagine if donors to your organization could use their donations to signal the value of your specific content. Once you knew the value of your specific content, then you could put the most valuable content on your homepage. The IH would determine the order (relative importance) of your blog entries. Just like the IH determines the order (relative importance) of meat, cereal and artichokes.

I created a ghetto (manual) system to facilitate this. Here’s a Google sheet with example links and here’s the code to embed it in any webpage. The code is embarrassingly bad because again, my primary passion is economics.

But I wish there was some way to truly convey the incredible immensity of being able to use this code (or some far better version) to solve the biggest problem of figuring out whether the IH is better than the VH at ordering things.

The grocery store is a market. You can use your money to signal the value of artichokes. The non-profit sector is a market. I can use my money to signal the value of Coding it Forward (CIF). CIF is not a market. I can’t use my money to signal the value of CIF’s specific blog entries. The public sector is not a market. I can’t use my money to signal the value of peace.

There’s no bigger problem than figuring out whether it’s beneficial for people to have the freedom to use their money to signal the value of specific things. So there’s no bigger problem that your organization can help solve. And it really wouldn’t be very difficult to solve. You’d simply give your donors the option to use their donations to signal the value of your specific blog entries. Then you’d embed the list in your homepage.

I’m trying to imagine us switching places and you telling me about the biggest problem in programming. Unless you drew me some really helpful diagrams, I’m pretty sure that the problem would go way over my head! So I completely understand if the biggest problem in economics has gone over your head! But if it hasn’t, and you’re interested in solving it, then let’s collaborate!