It’s a Friday night in downtown Seattle. The sounds of squawk, wonks, and beep erupt from the glow of neon lights on a monitor sitting near the street corner cafe. People gather around the monitor waving. A person in front of the monitor presses buttons and moves a joy stick. The machine looks and sounds like an arcade game. It isn’t. In fact, it is a game that allows people to interact with other citizens across the city of Seattle in a project called OpenSeattle.org. The players are playing in a multiplayer game to solve and interact a puzzle problem.
This is one of the many ideas to come out of idea hubs initiated by, Code for America. A non-partisan, non-political 501(c)(3) organization. Code for America was a brainchild idea to recruit Silicon Valley developers to work with city government. But how do you get the best and brightest to work for the government?
First, the problem. When the housing market crashed around 2007-2009 it took a lot of tax revenue away from local and state governments. Cities had less money, resources, and needed to do more. Roads were pot hole ridden, and blighted areas were appearing around shuttered foreclosed homes. This is where the challenge started for cities.
Silicon Valley companies know the importance of a web presence. They know how to engage their customers using mobile devices and the web. Building interactive websites that makes customers want to come back the company’s site. Actively campaigning their customers with additional services and features through email and site presence is important.
Code for America recruited programmers and designers to collaborate with city governments under a fellowship program. The concept of the program was to bridge the gap between private companies with government. One of the first application collaborated on with the City of Boston was, an ”adopt-a-hydrant” application. This let citizens adopt and name a fire hydrant if they ensure it was accessible to fire fighters after a snow storm. This solved the problem of using city resources to find and make sure fire hydrants where easily accessible after the city was blanketed by snow by interactively enlisting local citizens.
The City of Long Beach, California, was spending a huge amount of time managing their inspection request process. Their citizens would call in and leave voice mails for inspection schedules. The city spent over 1500 hours of staff time to manage the workload. The city teamed up with Code for America to create a minimum viable product, called Inspector Gadget. The process took managing business and contractors requesting inspections from 5 minutes down to a 30 second via an online process. This little change saved the city valuable time and money.
Key to solving a problem is to understand it. The second is don’t dive head first into a solution to solve the problem. Think. Figure out what minimal viable product is needed to solve the problem. There is never a one solution that solves all problems. If that were the case, there would only be one operating system or mobile device manufacture in the market. People and problems create unique opportunities.
Gov 2.0 or e-government is still in its early phase, as government leaders start to realize they need to find solutions to their technical problems. Software as a service (Saas) solutions like Google docs provides flexibility to work anywhere with any device. Google is providing the same services for managing a document sharing and email at a much lower cost. Cloud providers like Amazon and Microsoft can provide servers and databases at lower long term costs than having to physically maintain a data center with all the required redundancy and power backups. The great thing about both Saas and Cloud hosting is that the software and services is always being upgraded at no cost to the user.
For e-government today, an on-line presence is no longer a nice to have function of local government. It has become a required tool for citizen engagement and cost reduction. As such, there should be considerations on build verses buy approach. If it is a must build decision for software, then look for existing open source projects are out there. Someone may have already invented the wheel. If the decision is a must buy, look at all the options. Don’t figure the most expensive software is the best.