Coding Software for Community Engagement

San Diego, March 5, 2013  -- San Diego is one of 22 cities across the U.S. to host the second annual Code Across America, an “unconference/hackathon,” hosted by the organization Code for America and co-sponsored by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

Representatives from the City of San Diego, non-profit organizations and private consulting companies were among the attendees at Code Across America.
The event convened community members interested in developing software that can help citizens better engage with their communities and government.

Organizers for the San Diego event included Jeff Johnson of OpenGeo and Calit2's Jessica Block.

Local Code for America Brigades deploy, maintain and sustain civic technology and open data infrastructure for their communities. Students, civil servants, non-profit business owners, startup companies, and community planning organizations attended the San Diego event. Attendees included Joe LaCava, Chair of the City of San Diego Community Planners Committee, staff from the office of District 5 Councilman Mark Kersey, and a representative of Donna Frye, Director of the City of San Diego's Office of Open Government and Community Engagement.

Discussion topics ranged from spending transparency and crowdsourcing community input, to crowd-funding projects. “Accessible data reduces resentment that inhibits community engagement," noted the City of San Diego’s LaCava.

Joseph LaCava (right), Chair of the City of San Diego Community Planners Committee, talks with Jeff Johnson, lead organizer of the event in San Diego.
The Code Across America event is representative of a broader, international grassroots movement to grow community engagement using technology. It coincided Feb. 23 with International Open Data Day (opendataday.org/). The topic of open data surfaced again at UC San Diego on Feb. 26 at a talk by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco.

Newsom’s new book, Citizenville, also talks about how technology is enabling citizens to participate in government and to provide services that would otherwise take local and state government months or years to implement. "Hackathons now provide hundreds of apps that provide data that was yours anyway, and they save taxpayers literally millions of dollars,” said Newsom at UCSD’s Revelle Forum. “Technology democratizes voices."

"Open source is free like freedom, not free like beer,” explained OpenGeo’s Johnson, who is also captain of the San Diego Brigade. “You can get it for free, but it is only useful if you contribute to it."

According to Johnson, the first priority for Brigade members was to identify community needs before participants started coding solutions. The event was the first time City of San Diego, community, and open-source representatives came together to discuss technological solutions for San Diego government. New San Diego businesses focusing on community engagement solutions presented projects such as www.ecitizens.org, a web tool that scrapes local government documentation and allows citizens to subscribe to key terms they want to track.

Another example is www.sandiegodata.org a site for connecting data for civic and social development. Eric Busboom, owner of SanDiegoData.org says, “The problem is that data are in silos, and you need a social network to get access to data that is already public.” His website attempts to make data availability more transparent.

Code for America is part of a large network of tech-savvy individuals trying to take back their cities. “This is about creating a mechanism for which we can more effectively self-govern,” Lt. Gov. Newsom concluded in his UCSD appearance. “We should be big in solving ignorance, policy and disease, but less prescriptive on how we do it, where we can feel a sense of ownership of our cities.”

The tools developed across the country in Code Across America are doing just that.

Calit2 co-sponsored San Diego’s Code Across America as part of its mission to explore how emerging information technologies and telecommunications can transform California’s economy and its citizens’ quality of life.

by Jessica Block, Calit2, j.block@ucsd.edu

Related Links

Code Across America 2013  
Code for America Brigade  
San Diego Data 
E-citizens 
Open Data Day