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A Lesson from my time at the White House about Code for America

English: Code for America Logo
English: Code for America Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Lesson from My Time at the White House:

Why Bringing Code for America To Long Beach Could Make Our Local Government More Transparent

By Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske
September 11, 2013 --

In late July of this year, I was honored at the White House as one of six national Champions of Change for Open Government. This honor is bestowed on individuals who have advocated in their communities for open and transparent government – something which I have done since elected to City Council in 2006. The White House acknowledged my being the first on the Council to post my appointments and meetings and my frequent outreach on city issues via my blog, Facebook and email alerts. Most significantly has been my work on “Open Up Long Beach” – to provide city documents and behind the scenes tours so that residents can learn first hand how the City of Long Beach operates.

The second part of my day at the White House was meeting and talking with “civic hackers” – those who participate in taking public data and turning it into usable applications that help citizens learn more about their government and increase their opportunities to access it more readily. The leaders of this movement come from a non-profit organization: Code for America whose mission is to connect citizens with their government by using open data to create applications.

Code for America and their “brigades” of hackers have already created a number of applications with open source code that are available for free to the City of Long Beach: -- which provides a way by which citizens can engage in a dialogue about city issues by mobile phone. The city sends out surveys and asks citizens to respond. -- Honolulu Answers can be converted into Long Beach Answers and allows residents to go on line and type in questions and get answers specifically about such things as how to get a dog licensed in Long Beach, where to pay a parking ticket, how to get a sidewalk fixed, etc. -- this smart program was developed for the City of Santa Clara but can be used in Long Beach. It walks you through step by step on how to open a business in the City. -- this tracks the votes of councilmembers by linking with Legistar (which Long Beach uses) and then puts not only votes but campaign contributions and other information on a website for each member of the city council so that citizens can get the information they need without having to search several websites.

I was very fortunate to meet and talk with Christopher Whitaker, who is the Brigade Captain for the City of Chicago. Christopher teaches a weekly class on civic hacking at Chicago's Open Gov Hack Nights. When not at Hack Night or reporting on the state of civic hacking in Chicago, Christopher works at Smart Chicago Collaborative on projects like the Chicago User Testing Group, which ensures that the apps being developed by civic hackers are useful to the everyday Chicagoan.  People like Christopher are right here in Long Beach and are ready to step up and use their skills to develop programs for free that residents can use and that will enhance engagement with City Hall.

The City Manager has applied to bring three Code for America fellows (at a cost of $180,000) for a year. It wasn’t quite clear from the Council agenda what these hackers will be used for. Without spending a dime, we could start right now and use some of the programs already developed for other cities and move forward on making Long Beach more open and transparent.
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