They’re sometimes called the Peace Corp for Nerds. A team of three technology experts from Code for America has been working with Charlotte groups since early February to strengthen levels of citizen engagement.
The collaborative effort will produce a new tool for the city by the fall, when the team presents the project they’re now working on. But their key legacy may actually be in the relationships, ideas and motivational sparks they create with people along the way.
Tiffany Chu, Andrew Douglass and Danny Whalen are the Code for America Fellows working with Charlotte residents, government departments, non-profit organizations and companies. They are one of 10 teams, composed from 30 fellows assigned to U.S. cities, states or territories. Their goal is to develop tools, processes or solutions that use technology to better engage citizens. The team’s connection to Charlotte is led by Twyla McDermott, corporate information technology manager for the city, and Tom Warshauer, community engagement manager.
“Part of what we would like to improve is how citizens can provide input, how they can learn what’s going on, how they can better use our websites, how they can analyze what we’re doing, how they can communicate with us better,” Warshauer says.
“But as we begin to engage the community and think about those ideas, we might take on other projects that the fellows are not working on. We might do them internally with our staff, we might hire people, we might copy programs from other cities, we might rely on the new Code for Charlotte brigade that was created as a part of the program. So it really isn’t just one project – it’s a whole blossoming of lots of projects as a result of their visit.”
The fellows spent January in San Francisco, where Code for America is headquartered, in a series of trainings and workshops in government, change management, organizational innovation, technical workshops and the civic landscape. They then traveled to the partner cities. The team dedicated February to meetings within the Charlotte community, including two dozen government departments and more than 14 companies and non-profit agencies.
“It’s interesting to just land in a city where we’ve never been, with the expectation that we’re going to do something impactful,” says Tiffany Chu. “It’s a great opportunity, a significant amount of pressure, and we’re excited for what lies ahead and what we’re going to do together.”
Initial reports point toward a final project focused on one or more of four areas: storytelling, process, tools or data. The team will devote spring and summer months to prototyping, building, sharing and iterating their solution. They plan to complete and present the project in October or November. They will then transition the tools or processes to local city representatives. But the impact should be wider than the tool they create, Chu says.
“That’s just the first tangible piece,” she says. “When you work for a company and someone asks for a deliverable, you give them a deliverable. But that’s not the entire impact that will come from this engagement. There’s a series of ripples. There’s the core team, which is the three fellows and the city partners. Then there’s the larger city organizations with City Hall who are also collaborating on the project, coordinating whoever we need to meet with to make the project happen. Then there is a slightly larger sphere of folks who are in the community and involved with technology who we’ll be connecting with, to gain a sense of what their efforts are, and how we can help and build up that effort while we’re here. And then there is the larger sphere of end users and citizens, the people we’re trying to serve.”
The team is impressed by high levels of motivation in the Code for Charlotte brigade. More than 100 people signed up early, and more than 70 people attended the brigade’s first meeting – one of the highest levels of brigade participation in the United States.
The next six months present opportunities for collaboration among local technologists and the fellows, says Jim Van Fleet, captain of the Charlotte brigade. Van Fleet is the founder of a software school, a coding business, and a series of networking events designed to build connections in technology-based startup companies.
“What I’d like to see happen with Code for Charlotte in the next two years is a series of regular events that highlight how possible it is for anyone of any age to get involved in making their government better, and to make their city a better place to live. Whether they have technology skills or not, great technology is not only possible but do-able.
“I’ve found working with Charlotte city government to be a really inspiring thing,” Van Fleet says. “We have a lot of very professional, responsible, high-performing city servants inside our city government…. Whatever we accomplish at Code for Charlotte, we’re going to be able to leverage it. Decision-makers inside the city are going to be able to take whatever we make and put it into practice, which is an exciting thing. It helps increase the impact each of us can have by getting involved.”