Lou Huang: Why I’m Coding for America

This is a story of coming around full circle.

I was born here in San Francisco, in the midst of the technology industry, to a father who was an engineer in Silicon Valley long before the regional nickname was a household brand. In high school, we were one of the first households amongst my friends to have a cable internet connection, and I had inherited enough geekiness to spend many of those years sitting at home in front of a 14″ CRT learning how to code some of the web’s first mass-market personal websites on GeoCities.

But when it came time to choose a college major—and many of my peers chose the tech route—I was one of the rebels. Computers were fun, but computer science didn’t interest me all that much. I had started getting high on creativity, and I wanted to make things, real things you can touch. So, I majored in architecture.

After college, I put that degree to good use on coffee shops and custom homes, but there was something about the business of building that bothered me—inexplicable rules about parking requirements, for example, that resulted in lackluster urban environments I didn’t know how to justify. So I went back to school, this time in city planning and urban design, to try and make sense of it all. And there, they told me my intuitions were right, the old rules were wrong, and that I now belonged to a whole new generation of planners working to make neighborhoods livable again.

But back in the real world, that progress was painfully slow. A master plan could take years to draft and decades to implement, with any forward movement blocked by local politics or skittish developers. To make matters worse, the recession all but halted any new development activity for many years. Meanwhile, the tech world exploded around me in a burst of creative energy, resulting in new ways for the internet to augment the way we live.

I saw, for example, how Google dragged transit agencies into the present by encouraging them to adopt a standardized data format or risk being left out of Maps. But while Google had a technical interoperability problem to solve, there was an indirect side effect: by improving the exchange of transit information, Google was actually making public transit a more viable transportation option for everyone. We planners had spent years thinking about transit as essentially a policy problem first and a marketing problem second, and we were completely missing the greatest ideological bargain Silicon Valley had to offer: that if we actively address the technological problems first, we can ultimately achieve planning objectives that would be much too slow, expensive, or even impossible to do by policy alone.

So here I was, as an urban designer, at a crossroads: do I keep following the traditional path of writing documents that only talk about the challenges our communities face? Or, with the tools technology has provided us with, do I dive right in and actually start doing something? After all, we are far from the days of GeoCities, and now inhabit a world where we are the programmers and hackers of actual cities.

That choice was an easy one to make. And that is why I am Coding for America.

You can code for America too. We’re accepting applications for the 2014 Fellowship now through July 31. Apply here: http://codeforamerica.org/apply.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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