“The Most Important Thing Is that We Are Figuring It Out Together”
Five City Champions Share Insights from the Code for America Summit
Visually impaired residents in Louisville are gaining increased access to open data through voice-automated smart-home systems like Alexa. Efforts are underway to make the 2020 Census more accessible in the hard-to-count County of Los Angeles. These projects are the results of the types of collaborations between public servants and the thousands of volunteers in Code for America brigades across the country advancing solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing governments and communities.
Eager to inspire new collaborations, we called for civil servants to tweet at us with projects they wanted to undertake with their own local civic tech enthusiasts — and offered to send those with the strongest and most inspiring ideas to this year’s Code for America Summit.
We caught up with the five winners after the event to hear more about what they learned and their exciting projects. Meet them below.
Tell us about your role in your city, why you were excited to attend the Code for America Summit, and what project you have planned.
Lou Radkowski: I’m Mayor of Saint Marys, PA, and also a data architect for Accenture. I had been following tech initiatives for a while as I believe technology will broaden the reach of government. Being fiscally conservative, I find that technology is a great platform to use to make services less expensive and more reliable. The Code for America Summit was one way for me to reach out and network with folks interested in solving the same problems. I was very excited as tech resources are not easy to come by in a rural community, and I found the Code for America community to be very open to conversations and understanding of my situation.
Nick Walker: I am the Performance Data Manager for the City of Memphis. I work on Data-Driven Memphis, our open data and open performance site. I was excited to attend the Summit because it was a great opportunity to see what others have done in the same space. We want to develop the same level of interaction between citizens, technologists, and our data that many of the Summit participants already have.
Cheriene Floyd: I’m the Strategic Planning & Performance Manager for the City of Miami. I work with departments within the City to align their work with resident priorities, develop key performance indicators, and more recently, train employees to see and solve problems in their work. Earlier this year, Julie Kramer (co-captain of Code for Miami, Miami’s Code for America brigade) attended one of our two-and-half-day process improvement trainings. I was excited to attend the Code for America Summit because it seemed liked the perfect sequence of events. We are not simply digitizing, but improving processes before we digitize.
Jordan Hillman: I recently joined the City of Jackson, Mississippi, as Deputy Director of City Planning. In my role, I work with our zoning, historic preservation, signs, business licenses, and code services offices. We are currently operating with many outdated processes that utilize outdated technology. I was excited to attend the Summit because of the emphasis we in Jackson are placing on updating processes to be easier and more effective for those who interact with us.
Samantha Linnett: I am the program coordinator with the City of Syracuse’s Office of Accountability, Performance, and Innovation. We are a member of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Teams program and work with city departments, community partners, and residents to find new ways to address big challenges using data and design. In my role, I lead a lot of our community engagement and design processes, as well as project manage some of our initiatives. I was excited for the Code for America Summit because I knew I would learn the best ways that other cities are using data and design tactics to do similar work, and get to network with an amazing group of civic tech nerds.
What inspired you to propose your particular project?
LR: I’m a product of a rural community and we, along with other rural communities, are experiencing an out-migration to larger cities. It’s strange to me because Saint Marys has a solid manufacturing base and good jobs, so there must be another way to showcase the opportunities that we have in Saint Marys. I’ve challenged myself to highlight our area of the country and let others know of the opportunities here. Rural Pennsylvania — and all of rural America — need services and access to technology just like larger cities. But it’s hard to attract vendors who view our area as worthy of investment and, therefore, to build out infrastructure. So, we experience a downward spiral. I want to inspire our local youth and show them that government is a tech leader and not a follower. If they get excited about what they can do here, they just may stay around or look to return if they moved away.
NW: Having open data is just the first step. We want to operationalize that data to make it both informative and valuable to the people of Memphis. We’ve seen several flavors of open budgets used by many cities, but we want to build the right tool for Memphians.
CF: In Miami, there is a lot of activity around community engagement. It’s one of the things I am most proud of about working at the City. From the Mayor’s Office to the Transportation, Police, and Planning Departments, we are constantly engaging our residents. I wanted to capitalize on some of the great work we are currently doing.
JH: Zoning codes often get stuck in time and are arduous to replace and update. Our code was initially introduced in the early ’70s and has been amended but not substantially modernized since. It has yielded results that do not fit with the vision of creating a more human scale and equitable place. There have been efforts to write codes that are focused on creating proper form and even some focused on equity. What I haven’t seen is a code type that starts with the values and works dynamically to respond in an agile and incremental way. The values that I place importance on are economic productivity for the city, equity, and placemaking at the human scale. I proposed my project to start exploring how we could utilize technology to create a code like the one I have described, which would start first with a values analysis instead of the traditional approaches that focus on fixed land uses and dimensional standards. I also hope that the project can be open source so that other communities can use what we’ve developed.
SL: Housing stability for our residents is the challenge that my office is currently focused on addressing. We have done a lot of engagement and design with city staff and departments for previous projects but have struggled to get down to the resident level. With our housing stability work, we want to collaborate with residents to design solutions for the challenges they face on a daily basis.
What’s one thing you learned at the Summit that surprised you?
LR: I was surprised by how included I felt at the end of the Summit, when I discussed the needs of rural America. I had many people stop me, willing to share ideas and offer help. The support was overwhelming and a great way to keep the momentum going as I returned home. I have a list of people who I want to contact, and I need to get my own project list and backlog ready. We have great city staff, and I know this will be a good thing for our area.
NW: That everybody — even the cities I look up to most — is still trying to figure it out. The most important thing is that we are figuring it out together.
CF: That there was this pervasive acknowledgement that culture is what propels digital, policy, and process change. We are acutely aware of this trend in government. It was great to hear that there’s an interest in contributing to some of the culture work needed to modernize government tech solutions.
JH: I heard it over and over: the technology is the easy part; the culture and policy work is the challenge. I do the policy work daily; I thought the technology would be hard. The Summit opened my eyes to the partnership between technology and policy. I also learned a lot about Agile, which is comical as my husband works on a scrum team, and I have heard him discuss it many times without seeing the crossover application.
SL: One thing that surprised me at the Summit is how applicable skateboarding is as a metaphor to the civic innovation work we do in our cities every day: “We hack the environment to do things it was never designed for,” “having a shared belief in possibility,” “the vast majority of what we do is fall and get back up again.” It was inspiring to think about these higher lessons and values that we follow each day, and to stress that “falling” is an integral part of the work.
How would you describe the value of cities collaborating with their local civic tech communities?
LR: Necessary. Tech is driving business today, and it needs to drive policymaking and implementation. We need to have good procurement policies so big and small government entities can get the systems they need. We need our states to relinquish some control so rural communities can think and work for themselves. Subsidiarity is a good thing, and there needs to be an understanding that what works for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia may not be the easiest option for small towns. For rural communities, there needs to be a regional group that can help drive similar transformation across an area covering several counties and the many municipalities under their umbrella. I know I will be partnering with our own local group, North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, to see how I can share the lessons and information from the Summit to develop more regional opportunities.
NW: Local civic tech communities, as opposed to many others in the tech space, have a vested interest in the success of cities. Our success is their success, and their success is our success. It’s a great cycle.
CF: To help bridge the gap in skill sets not common in the public sector. I heard a panelist say that product management is widely absent from government and that civic tech can be instrumental in helping governments scope problems and design solutions effectively. That was spot on.
JH: We currently do not have a Code for America brigade in Jackson, Mississippi. After hearing stories from brigades around the country, I realized we are missing out. I’m exploring how to start a brigade here because of the value I saw from the stories I heard.
SL: One word: invaluable. Working with the civic tech community helps give local governments the added capacity and resources we need to innovate and improve the way we work. It also introduces new approaches to data and design methods not commonly known or employed in our sector. Even for cities that have a dedicated internal team like ours, the extra help is always needed. There’s plenty of work to do!
How will you apply what you’ve learned at the Summit to move your project forward?
LR: I will leverage the power of community. As an elected official, I will be reaching out in that capacity to set up projects and champion this work in front of the people but also internally at City Hall. It was great to have fellow attendees talk to me after, and I’m looking forward to building those relationships. I would also like to build relationships with more organizations in our community. For example, I was one of the founding trustees of a newly established regional college that follows a community college model in our region. It doesn’t sound like much from the outside, but for us, it’s the first step in providing affordable education to our residents. I could see institutions like this becoming core partners in developing coding and technology skills in rural areas like Saint Marys.
NW: The lessons learned from the Summit act as a “cheat code” to help us fast-track our design and avoid some of the pitfalls that have slowed other projects. Additionally, getting to talk with folks further along the maturity model gives me so many ideas that I feel like my notebook is substantially heavier just from the notes filling it.
CF: I hope to work with other city employees and our local Code for America brigade to rethink our current process to better meet user needs before we digitize.
JH: I have some ideas about how to develop my project, but it is such a broad idea that it will take some time to focus it into a product. My husband is a developer, and we have sketched out some initial ideas of how the project could look and where technology can play a part. It didn’t occur to me prior to the Summit that my husband’s software development career path would actually be a good match for collaboration.
SL: I’m super excited to apply some of the design strategies I learned at the Summit to our housing stability work. We are already planning engagement sessions to work with residents around these challenges, learn how they impact their daily lives, and identify solutions that they think would help.
Stay tuned! We’ll follow up with the winners again in a few months to see how their projects have progressed.