Rebecca Ackerman: Why I’m Coding for America

Last summer I was biking around western Pilsen, a majority Latino neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, when most of the road disappeared. I’ve lived on the South Side the entire time I’ve been in Chicago, and had always assumed the potholes near me were as bad as it got. But as I navigated the small amount of paved street, I realized I had underestimated just how bad Chicago’s streets can be: the neighborhood I called home had streets that contained actual pavement, and not rubble. Chicagoans all have their own stories of monster potholes that swallow traffic cones, but this was different – it was obvious that there was a systematic deficit of upkeep.

It would be easy to blame the city bureaucracy – or workers themselves – for this. But actually, if you look at a map of service requests to 311, you wouldn’t know that western Pilsen had a large number of essentially unpaved streets. Like everything else, potholes are well-reported, and thus quickly fixed, in the middle- to high-income parts of the city. In neighborhoods like Hyde Park or Mount Greenwood, we know that we can call 311 and that we also have to call our alderman. And so we see our potholes fixed eventually, and our stop signs replaced, and our sidewalks repaired, and all the other things that makes you feel like your city cares about you.

So what happens when you and your neighbors don’t know you have to call 311 and then follow up with your alderman? The city, with its budgets stretched, instead fixes the potholes that get complained about. Living in Chicago, I have seen this phenomenon play out over and over again: communities that do not have access to governmental information are continually marginalized, and city agencies serve residents that are easier to find.

There are amazing community organizations that agitate from the bottom up for city services. Groups such as Southwest Organizing Project, Fearless Leading by the Youth, SOUL, and too many others to name, fight to make sure their constituents are heard, especially when those constituents don’t have money or power. And on the other side of the divide, there are many city agencies whose employees are tasked with reaching communities that often don’t seek out services. Working with the Department of Family and Support Services, I’ve been impressed with how effective they are. But there’s still a large gap, especially in vital services. Cutting out at least a little of that static is why I’m a Code for America Fellow. I believe technology can bridge the gap between top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top communication.

I’ve also seen how hard it is to build ways to communicate important information with already-marginalized residents, even when organizations or government want to. Code for America fellows have done a wonderful job of helping to bridge that gap, by working with governments to find innovative solutions toward getting both feet into the 21st century. In San Francisco, we’re working with the city’s Health and Human Services department, to make their work a bit easier. And I’ll be designing with the knowledge that we only get the government we create, so we might as well create a good one for all community members.

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

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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