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February 28, 2013

Civic Hacking Targets Optimizing Government

Isaac Lopez

What do you get when you cross the Peace Corps with the Geek Squad?  Aside from a rich supply of lunch money, you might get the group of civic coding crusaders known as Code for America.

“We call ourselves the Peace Corps for geeks” explained Jennifer Pahlka, founder an executive director, of Code for America. This volunteer force of coders have all quit their jobs for a full year and committed themselves toward using their considerable talents as developers, designers and data wranglers to solve problems of the civic nature.

Similar to New York City’s Code Corps, these do-good hackers use lean start-up principles, data driven decision-making, and design thinking to take advantage of the massive data flows of government and put it to good use.

It’s not all service apps and web site optimization, though. Taking advantage of the available data can have significant social impacts, says Pahlka. As an example, Code for America is working with former New Jersey Attorney General, Anne Milgram, to implement a data-driven risk assessment model that helps cities make better decisions about pre-trial incarcerations.

“Pre-trial incarceration is one of the biggest costs for cities,” says Pahlka. “In some cases, it’s the second biggest cost after pensions.” Pahlka explains that the system is often jammed with petty criminals who much of the time are arbitrarily held in the system. “They’ve found out that one of the biggest factors on whether you’re held or released is whether the judge had lunch that day.”

“If you can move the needle on getting fewer people held pretrial safely, you’re not just saving lives, but you’re saving an enormous amount of money for city government, which means you’re saving taxpayer dollars,” says Pahlka. Currently, Code for America is working with Louisville, KY, and New York City on using data to improve processes like this in the local criminal justice systems.  

The current Code for America corps is made up of 28 fellows for 2013, and have as many apps built in the last two years, including projects such as “Where’s My School Bus,” which tracks Boston public school bus routes in real time, and “Councilmatic,” which Code for America boasts “makes accessing Philadelphia legislative data as easy as checking email.”

See Jennifer Pahlka’s address at the Strata Conference:


Related Articles:

New York City Calls in the Code Corps 

Big Data Cloud Combo Boosts Government 

Helping the Government Survive the Data Tsunami