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TED2012

Jennifer Pahlka: Coding a better government

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Can government be run like the Internet, permissionless and open? Coder and activist Jennifer Pahlka believes it can -- and that apps, built quickly and cheaply, are a powerful new way to connect citizens to their governments -- and their neighbors.

- Code activist
Jennifer Pahlka is the founder of Code for America, which matches software geniuses with US cities to reboot local services. Full bio

So a couple of years ago I started a program
00:15
to try to get the rockstar tech and design people
00:18
to take a year off
00:22
and work in the one environment
00:24
that represents pretty much everything they're supposed to hate;
00:26
we have them work in government.
00:29
The program is called Code for America,
00:32
and it's a little bit like a Peace Corps for geeks.
00:34
We select a few fellows every year
00:37
and we have them work with city governments.
00:40
Instead of sending them off into the Third World,
00:43
we send them into the wilds of City Hall.
00:46
And there they make great apps, they work with city staffers.
00:48
But really what they're doing is they're showing what's possible
00:51
with technology today.
00:54
So meet Al.
00:56
Al is a fire hydrant in the city of Boston.
00:58
Here it kind of looks like he's looking for a date,
01:00
but what he's really looking for is for someone to shovel him out when he gets snowed in,
01:03
because he knows he's not very good at fighting fires
01:06
when he's covered in four feet of snow.
01:08
Now how did he come to be looking for help
01:11
in this very unique manner?
01:13
We had a team of fellows in Boston last year
01:15
through the Code for America program.
01:17
They were there in February, and it snowed a lot in February last year.
01:19
And they noticed that the city never gets
01:22
to digging out these fire hydrants.
01:24
But one fellow in particular,
01:26
a guy named Erik Michaels-Ober,
01:28
noticed something else,
01:30
and that's that citizens are shoveling out sidewalks
01:32
right in front of these things.
01:34
So he did what any good developer would do,
01:36
he wrote an app.
01:38
It's a cute little app where you can adopt a fire hydrant.
01:40
So you agree to dig it out when it snows.
01:42
If you do, you get to name it,
01:44
and he called the first one Al.
01:46
And if you don't, someone can steal it from you.
01:48
So it's got cute little game dynamics on it.
01:50
This is a modest little app.
01:53
It's probably the smallest
01:55
of the 21 apps that the fellows wrote last year.
01:57
But it's doing something
01:59
that no other government technology does.
02:01
It's spreading virally.
02:03
There's a guy in the I.T. department of the City of Honolulu
02:06
who saw this app and realized
02:09
that he could use it, not for snow,
02:11
but to get citizens to adopt tsunami sirens.
02:13
It's very important that these tsunami sirens work,
02:17
but people steal the batteries out of them.
02:19
So he's getting citizens to check on them.
02:21
And then Seattle decided to use it
02:23
to get citizens to clear out clogged storm drains.
02:26
And Chicago just rolled it out
02:29
to get people to sign up to shovel sidewalks when it snows.
02:31
So we now know of nine cities
02:34
that are planning to use this.
02:36
And this has spread just frictionlessly,
02:38
organically, naturally.
02:40
If you know anything about government technology,
02:42
you know that this isn't how it normally goes.
02:44
Procuring software usually takes a couple of years.
02:48
We had a team that worked on a project in Boston last year
02:51
that took three people about two and a half months.
02:54
It was a way that parents could figure out
02:57
which were the right public schools for their kids.
02:59
We were told afterward that if that had gone through normal channels,
03:01
it would have taken at least two years
03:04
and it would have cost about two million dollars.
03:07
And that's nothing.
03:10
There is one project in the California court system right now
03:12
that so far cost taxpayers
03:14
two billion dollars,
03:16
and it doesn't work.
03:18
And there are projects like this
03:20
at every level of government.
03:22
So an app that takes a couple of days to write
03:24
and then spreads virally,
03:28
that's sort of a shot across the bow
03:30
to the institution of government.
03:32
It suggests how government could work better --
03:34
not more like a private company,
03:36
as many people think it should.
03:38
And not even like a tech company,
03:40
but more like the Internet itself.
03:42
And that means permissionless,
03:45
it means open, it means generative.
03:47
And that's important.
03:51
But what's more important about this app
03:53
is that it represents how a new generation
03:55
is tackling the problem of government --
03:57
not as the problem of an ossified institution,
04:00
but as a problem of collective action.
04:03
And that's great news,
04:05
because, it turns out, we're very good at collective action
04:07
with digital technology.
04:10
Now there's a very large community of people
04:12
that are building the tools that we need
04:14
to do things together effectively.
04:16
It's not just Code for America fellows,
04:18
there are hundreds of people all over the country
04:20
that are standing and writing civic apps
04:22
every day in their own communities.
04:24
They haven't given up on government.
04:28
They are frustrated as hell with it,
04:30
but they're not complaining about it,
04:32
they're fixing it.
04:34
And these folks know something
04:36
that we've lost sight of.
04:38
And that's that when you strip away all your feelings
04:40
about politics and the line at the DMV
04:42
and all those other things
04:44
that we're really mad about,
04:46
government is, at its core,
04:48
in the words of Tim O'Reilly,
04:51
"What we do together that we can't do alone."
04:53
Now a lot of people have given up on government.
04:58
And if you're one of those people,
05:00
I would ask that you reconsider,
05:02
because things are changing.
05:05
Politics is not changing;
05:07
government is changing.
05:10
And because government
05:12
ultimately derives its power from us --
05:14
remember "We the people?" --
05:16
how we think about it
05:18
is going to effect how that change happens.
05:20
Now I didn't know very much about government when I started this program.
05:23
And like a lot of people,
05:26
I thought government was basically about getting people elected to office.
05:28
Well after two years, I've come to the conclusion
05:31
that, especially local government,
05:33
is about opossums.
05:35
This is the call center for the services and information line.
05:38
It's generally where you will get
05:41
if you call 311 in your city.
05:43
If you should ever have the chance
05:45
to staff your city's call center,
05:47
as our fellow Scott Silverman did as part of the program --
05:49
in fact, they all do that --
05:51
you will find that people call government
05:53
with a very wide range of issues,
05:56
including having an opossum stuck in your house.
05:58
So Scott gets this call.
06:01
He types "Opossum" into this official knowledge base.
06:03
He doesn't really come up with anything. He starts with animal control.
06:05
And finally, he says, "Look, can you just open all the doors to your house
06:08
and play music really loud
06:11
and see if the thing leaves?"
06:13
So that worked. So booya for Scott.
06:15
But that wasn't the end of the opossums.
06:18
Boston doesn't just have a call center.
06:20
It has an app, a Web and mobile app,
06:22
called Citizens Connect.
06:24
Now we didn't write this app.
06:26
This is the work of the very smart people
06:28
at the Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston.
06:30
So one day -- this is an actual report -- this came in:
06:32
"Opossum in my trashcan. Can't tell if it's dead.
06:35
How do I get this removed?"
06:38
But what happens with Citizens Connect is different.
06:41
So Scott was speaking person-to-person.
06:43
But on Citizens Connect everything is public,
06:46
so everybody can see this.
06:48
And in this case, a neighbor saw it.
06:50
And the next report we got said,
06:52
"I walked over to this location,
06:54
found the trashcan behind the house.
06:56
Opossum? Check. Living? Yep.
06:58
Turned trashcan on its side. Walked home.
07:01
Goodnight sweet opossum."
07:03
(Laughter)
07:05
Pretty simple.
07:07
So this is great. This is the digital meeting the physical.
07:09
And it's also a great example
07:12
of government getting in on the crowd-sourcing game.
07:14
But it's also a great example of government as a platform.
07:17
And I don't mean necessarily
07:20
a technological definition of platform here.
07:22
I'm just talking about a platform for people
07:24
to help themselves and to help others.
07:26
So one citizen helped another citizen,
07:30
but government played a key role here.
07:32
It connected those two people.
07:34
And it could have connected them with government services if they'd been needed,
07:37
but a neighbor is a far better and cheaper alternative
07:40
to government services.
07:43
When one neighbor helps another,
07:45
we strengthen our communities.
07:47
We call animal control, it just costs a lot of money.
07:49
Now one of the important things we need to think about government
07:54
is that it's not the same thing as politics.
07:56
And most people get that,
07:59
but they think that one is the input to the other.
08:01
That our input to the system of government
08:04
is voting.
08:06
Now how many times have we elected a political leader --
08:08
and sometimes we spend a lot of energy
08:10
getting a new political leader elected --
08:12
and then we sit back and we expect government
08:15
to reflect our values and meet our needs,
08:17
and then not that much changes?
08:21
That's because government is like a vast ocean
08:25
and politics is the six-inch layer on top.
08:28
And what's under that
08:32
is what we call bureaucracy.
08:34
And we say that word with such contempt.
08:36
But it's that contempt
08:39
that keeps this thing that we own
08:41
and we pay for
08:44
as something that's working against us, this other thing,
08:46
and then we're disempowering ourselves.
08:49
People seem to think politics is sexy.
08:52
If we want this institution to work for us,
08:55
we're going to have to make bureaucracy sexy.
08:58
Because that's where the real work of government happens.
09:01
We have to engage with the machinery of government.
09:05
So that's OccupytheSEC movement has done.
09:08
Have you seen these guys?
09:10
It's a group of concerned citizens
09:12
that have written a very detailed
09:14
325-page report
09:16
that's a response to the SEC's request for comment
09:18
on the Financial Reform Bill.
09:20
That's not being politically active,
09:22
that's being bureaucratically active.
09:24
Now for those of us who've given up on government,
09:28
it's time that we asked ourselves
09:31
about the world that we want to leave for our children.
09:33
You have to see the enormous challenges
09:36
that they're going to face.
09:38
Do we really think we're going to get where we need to go
09:41
without fixing the one institution
09:44
that can act on behalf of all of us?
09:46
We can't do without government,
09:48
but we do need it
09:50
to be more effective.
09:52
The good news is that technology is making it possible
09:54
to fundamentally reframe
09:56
the function of government
09:58
in a way that can actually scale
10:00
by strengthening civil society.
10:03
And there's a generation out there that's grown up on the Internet,
10:05
and they know that it's not that hard
10:08
to do things together,
10:10
you just have to architect the systems the right way.
10:12
Now the average age of our fellows is 28,
10:16
so I am, begrudgingly,
10:19
almost a generation older than most of them.
10:21
This is a generation
10:24
that's grown up taking their voices pretty much for granted.
10:26
They're not fighting that battle that we're all fighting
10:29
about who gets to speak;
10:31
they all get to speak.
10:33
They can express their opinion
10:35
on any channel at any time,
10:37
and they do.
10:39
So when they're faced with the problem of government,
10:41
they don't care as much
10:44
about using their voices.
10:46
They're using their hands.
10:48
They're using their hands
10:50
to write applications that make government work better.
10:52
And those applications let us use our hands
10:55
to make our communities better.
10:58
That could be shoveling out a hydrant, pulling a weed,
11:01
turning over a garbage can with an opossum in it.
11:04
And certainly, we could have been shoveling out those fire hydrants all along,
11:08
and many people do.
11:11
But these apps are like little digital reminders
11:13
that we're not just consumers,
11:16
and we're not just consumers of government,
11:18
putting in our taxes and getting back services.
11:20
We're more than that,
11:23
we're citizens.
11:25
And we're not going to fix government
11:27
until we fix citizenship.
11:30
So the question I have for all of you here:
11:33
When it comes to the big, important things
11:37
that we need to do together,
11:39
all of us together,
11:41
are we just going to be a crowd of voices,
11:43
or are we also going to be
11:46
a crowd of hands?
11:48
Thank you.
11:50
(Applause)
11:52

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About the speaker:

Jennifer Pahlka - Code activist
Jennifer Pahlka is the founder of Code for America, which matches software geniuses with US cities to reboot local services.

Why you should listen

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America, which works with talented web professionals and cities around the country to promote public service and reboot government. She spent eight years at CMP Media where she led the Game Group, responsible for GDC, Game Developer magazine, and Gamasutra.com; there she also launched the Independent Games Festival and served as executive director of the International Game Developers Association. Recently, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb and co-chaired the successful Web 2.0 Expo. She is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Oakland, CA with her daughter and six chickens.

More profile about the speaker
Jennifer Pahlka | Speaker | TED.com