Marc Hébert: Why I’m Coding for America

“People do not come with standardized circumstances,” a librarian shared with me during my research in Applied Anthropology prior to starting the Code for America Fellowship. At that time, I was documenting how Floridians experience the design of an online application process for Medicaid and Food Stamps (now called “SNAP”). The librarian’s statement speaks to the importance of empathy when designing government digital services.

Unfortunately, none of the state employees involved in that program whom I contacted were able to participate in my research. As a result, the impact of the findings was limited. I couldn’t share with them how to tweak their evaluative approach to better understand their clients’ experiences. We didn’t chat about the success of ethnographic methods, quantitative data and the iterative process of design to improve service delivery. The CfA fellowship, however, offered me the opportunity to do all of those things. Public officials in San Francisco welcomed my participation and ideas. In fact, they and my team supported me to create a series of workshops for City employees about using the design process to develop more effective programs centered on residents.

Near the end of my Fellowship a government employee even gave me a hug, thanking the team for our contributions. Measuring our impact in hugs was not something I considered as the start of the year. It speaks to the empathy I have found among many who serve San Franciscans as well as the other fellows and staff at CfA. Empathy informed by recognizing the frustration of experiencing certain public services, and using design and anthropology to improve the situation. That’s why I’m Coding for America.


Visualizing our research findings earlier in the year.

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