Reusable Civic Technology: Urban Legend or Urban Reality?

This year’s fellows have been hard at work building apps for their cities for almost six months now, and we’re starting to see the fruits of their efforts. Fellowship cities across the country — and the Code for America office — have been abuzz about product launches like Textizen in Philadelphia, Honolulu Answers in Honolulu, and in Austin, Texas, to name just a few.

And the potential impact of these apps reaches far beyond the fellowship cities that these projects were built for. Our fellows aren’t just coding for Detroit, or Santa Cruz, Calif., or Macon, Ga. — they’re coding for America. Core to our work at Code for America is the principle of reusable technology and collaboration between cities, and we’ve structured our fellowship program to support that: all of our projects are released under an open source license, freely available for any other city to reuse or adapt.

Why? As our government relations director (and soon-to-be first-ever Chief Data Officer of Philadelphia!) Mark Headd summarized it recently:

“Code for America hears common needs from cities coast to coast. Replicating a grant or incentive program requires replicating a budget or multiplying staff. But replicating technology is cheap by comparison — so when cities have the same need, why reinvent the wheel?”

But reuse doesn’t happen on its own. Just making the code is available on GitHub isn’t enough (though it’s certainly important and an exciting step forward). Reuse of civic technology requires that innovators in other cities and communities are aware of the technology that’s available to be repurposed and how it might work in their own city. It requires understanding of the next steps needed to redeploy an app.

And most importantly, it takes hard work from forward-thinking civil servants and civic hackers who are committed to bringing these tools to their own communities. They’re on the ground working to drive forward change in their communities, and adapting code built for one city to needs specific to another can often be a frustrating, messy process.

It’s challenging. But it’s a testament to our civic leaders — a group that includes innovative city officials across the country, Brigade members, and CfA fellows, along with many others — that they’re rising to the occasion, scaling the impact of open civic tech by reusing and repurposing it.

On Wednesday, Salt Lake City announced their new citizen engagement initiative using Textizen, built for Philadelphia this year. Textizen is slated to go up in several more cities in the near future, and LocalData, built for Detroit, plans to go live in five cities soon. Adopta, built for Boston last year to help citizens maintain fire hydrants, was just redeployed in Honolulu as Adopt-a-Siren. This is all made possible because of hardworking and determined civic leaders — often within City Hall — advocating to bring these tools to their cities.

For example, a local city councilman in Whitewater, Wis., took it upon himself to repurpose and stand up a budget transparency tool originally built for Cook County, Calif. — with the result being that the citizens of Whitewater are now empowered to better understand what their local government is doing, and where their money is being spent. The roles of “civic hacker” and “civil servant” are increasingly converging.

Reuse is happening. And we want to drive it forward further to help scale the impact of the work that our city partners and fellows are doing this year. Awareness of what’s available to be shared and understanding of how it can fit the needs of other cities is the first step to moving forward.

That’s why we’re hosting our first-ever Fellowship Projects Demo Webinar next Thursday. We’ll be screening a selection of this year’s projects, and the fellows who built those apps will be online to answer your questions. It’s a chance to find out what the fellows been working on, learn how these apps might be used in your city for your city’s residents, and what you need to do to redeploy these projects.

As we saw at our inaugural Code for America Summit last year — and as we begin to gear up for this year’s Summit coming up in October — cool things happen when you get civic technologists from inside and outside government talking to each other. Let’s keep those conversations going.

You can RSVP for the webinar now — it’s free to attend, and will be livestreamed on Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET).

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