Find the Geeks in Government

Last year, Open City – the civic apps collective I’m a part of – released CPS Tiers, a website that makes it easier for parents to navigate Chicago’s selective schools admissions process. Like many of our apps, this one was made with Derek Eder’s open source fusion tables map template.

The app caught the eye of Chicago Public School’s (CPS) social media guy, @alexsoble. He told the school district’s coders about it. They dug what they saw, and reached out to Derek for pointers on using the template to build a map for last year’s local school council elections. For the first time, parents could easily look up who was running for their school’s council.

Earlier this year, CPS decided to redesign their school locator app. As the name suggests, this app lets you find schools near year. It was built in 2004, so it was clunky as hell. The app’s vendor had long gone under and had never documented the app, so there was nobody left at CPS that knew how to maintain it.

The CPS team used Derek’s template to rebuild the app. Before launching it, they dropped by our weekly Open Gov Hack Night and monthly Open Gov forum. They worked our feedback into the final product.

Awesomely, they were excited to open up the app’s school attendance boundary data. We encouraged them to also open source the app, which they’re working on now.
The new app is worlds better than the old one. And they built it in-house in just four weeks, instead of wasting half a year going through procurement and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for crappier software. They plan to keep iterating on the app, instead of letting it stagnate. And they’ll likely open the code soon, so other school districts can benefit from the app and improve it.

The key takeaway here is the importance of getting the nerds in the room. Informal relationships with folks in government are key. Figure out who the geeks in government are, grab a beer with them, and invite them to your meetup. This is easier to do if you already have a network of contacts in government, nonprofits, foundations, and the like. Happy hours for people interested in cities and tech are a great way of growing that network.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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