CfA Apps: Ends or Means?

We spend a lot of time at Code for America, well…coding. This is based on our belief that writing software is a more direct path to change than writing white papers.

But we also understand that our apps are likely to fade away over time, and that the lasting effects of our work might be harder to quantify: new, web-oriented job titles in City Hall; improved communications between citizens and government; increased tolerance to public sector innovation and risk.

Acknowledging that software is not an end in itself leads to important questions about the underlying goals of our work. It also leads to questions about the other means of achieving these goals: hack-athons are one example (Team Detroit attracted 60 local developers to Apps for Detroit and prompted the Mayor’s Office to open up five new datasets); policy work is another (the Summer Interns’ Open Impact campaign had its first signatory today). If these methods turn out to be equally effective, how should we divide our time?

In the midst of recent conversations about impact and sustainability, I received an email from Carl Allen of Boston Public Schools. Carl was hired as the Program Director for Data Reporting and Analytics during our engagement with the City last year; he was promoted to Transportation Director after we left. Carl was extremely supportive of our work and is the kind of tech-savvy innovator that Code for America hopes will rise to positions of authority in government.

Carl was writing to let us know that one of our 2011 projects — Where’s My School Bus — was selected for an RFP (“request for proposals”). This means that Boston is committed to maintaining the project after its engagement with Code for America has ended. It’s exciting news on many levels: not only is it Code for America’s first follow-on RFP, but Where’s My School Bus is perhaps the least likely app to get an RFP. We built the prototype over a long weekend!

The idea for Where’s My School Bus came out of early interviews with Boston Public Schools officials. We learned about the “snowpocalypse” of 2010, when 14,000 parents called the Boston Public Schools (BPS) hotline to find out the location and ETA of their child’s school bus. BPS administrators answered the question by authenticating the parent, accessing the appropriate school bus in the bus management system, and relaying the information over the phone. This struck us as an antiquated mode of accessing information and prompted us to ask a few questions: which vendor provided the bus management system? Did they have an API? Could we get them on the phone right now?

After a couple of boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and a little bit of arm twisting, we were on the phone with the vendor. Seventy two hours later, we had a functional app. It was a classic example of a “quick-win” project. It was also — explicitly — a means to an end: we were working on an educational API and hoped to impress upon the school department the tangible benefits of opening up their data.

With the issuance of a formal RFP, what was once a means to an end now becomes an end in itself, and all of the checkboxes have been checked:

✓ New, tech-savvy people in government (though we probably don’t get too much credit for this!)

✓ Improved communications between residents and government

✓ Increased tolerance to public sector innovation and risk

✓ Production software maintained by the City

David Clark of the IETF coined the famous engineering dictum “We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” Where’s My School Bus demonstrates what’s possible when control structures are relaxed and a tangible product is allowed to speak for itself. In its second year of operation, Code for America proves that the ethos of the internet can be brought into City Hall and that the paradigms of agile software development can be successfully applied to government operations. We believe this paradigm can help government to operate more efficiently and creatively.

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