Cyd Harrell: Why I’m Coding For America

I’m coding for America because I believe that good UX design has the potential to transform our relationship with government – by building better citizen experiences, we can rebuild the understanding that, as Jen Pahlka says, government is what we do together.

I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of something being public in a democracy, and how digital experiences can reflect that. Offline, we know when we’re taking part in something larger than ourselves — if you’ve ever choked up in the voting booth or during the national anthem, you’ve felt the power of the civic idea. If you’ve experienced the frustration of the proverbial DMV line, you’ve felt the correspondingly deep disappointment when an encounter with our institutions doesn’t live up to that idea. Now that more and more interactions with government are moving online, we urgently need to learn how to connect department websites and online forms to those powerful civic emotions. For me as a design researcher, there couldn’t be a more inspiring challenge.

I want to develop — I want to experience — government services that respect citizens’ time, dignity, and abilities; that actively invite full participation; and that express the fundamental democratic principle that citizens and government are on the same side. I believe that rewarding interactions with government can reverse the cycle of declining trust and participation. While I could set up shop and offer consulting services to government agencies or municipalities, design alone won’t get the job done. Building the government we deserve requires data and code and culture. So I’m here to collaborate.

I want to acknowledge that I’m here because engineers and advocates have led the way – we now have thousands of open datasets, cities full of interested officials, and scores of building tools available. And every time I’ve approached those engineers and advocates, they’ve welcomed me and made room for me to do useful work alongside them. This is an open movement built by others, and I’m gratefully accepting their invitation.

I hope to offer some simple and powerful practices from my field to the public organizations CfA serves, via the Fellows and through teaching in the Brigade and Peer Network. I’m an experienced qualitative researcher, but honestly, what I do is far from rocket science. I don’t discount the skills I’ve polished over the last fifteen years, but I don’t believe you need all the polish to start understanding how people interact with systems (digital or otherwise). If I can persuade everyone at CfA and in our partner cities to do their first user observations, I’m confident they’ll learn more from city residents than from any class they could take.

I’m also here because I hope to inspire others in creative fields to do civic work, as I was inspired by Dana Chisnell and Jess McMullin among others; and I hope to discover models of participation that work with the culture of our community. As of yet, design doesn’t have a tradition of open-source contribution and recognition, and many of us don’t know how to begin working on public projects. Yet I know from conversations within the field, how much desire there is to work for the public good. I hope any designer or researcher who reads this will contact me, to talk about how I can help make it happen.

With so many datasets now available and so many services going online, we have the unique opportunity to define how the civic idea operates online in the 21st century. Will it be the stirring sight of white columns and waving flags? I believe it will be completely different but with just as much power to connect us to something larger than ourselves. Thousands of individual officials and geeks of all sorts will be involved, but one of the places where we’ll have the broadest scope, the most data points, and the best platform to show what’s possible will be here at Code for America. So here I am. Let’s do this together.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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