Kevin Curry

How hackers can code a better America

CfA Brigade

With the launch of the new Code for America Brigade website, we asked Program Director Kevin Curry to talk about its mission and how you can bring ‘civic hacking’ to where you live.

What is the significance of a CfA Brigade?

Citizens taking responsibility for fixing government where it is broken. When it comes to the web and information technology government is definitely not doing things right. I’m talking about antiquated IT systems, poor user interfaces and experiences, wasting taxpayer money on IT that never ships, closed government data, and all of the unrealized potential that both the web and the people who power it can provide to make government work better for everyone. Brigade is a new form of citizen engagement. One thing I know all governments want is more engaged citizens. Well, geeks are citizens too, and we can help. We want to help. We’re going to help, whether government officials recognize the need or not. CfA Brigade means that anyone can code for America, anywhere.

How does the new website help citizens start their own “civic brigade?”

The site emphasizes two things: 1) connecting with other civic hackers, through online forums and in-person events, and 2) the activities that anyone can do to code for America where they live. Behind the site is a support team who acts as “concierge service” to help people navigate the network, find civic hacking projects and connect with other civic hackers. We have a main forum for Brigade (brigade@codeforamerica.org) that any member can use to message the entire network. There are also dozens of email lists that we track. These are local groups all over the U.S. When we find out where someone lives we try to connect them to a local forum. We use MeetUp Everywhere so members can organize local events and there is a calendar where we track civic hacking events around the country. Most importantly, the site helps civic hackers understand what they should be doing to improve the way their local governments use the web to communicate, deliver services, and engage with citizens. Through the site members can find out how to open civic data, advocate for open government, commit to open source, civic software, deploy and maintain civic apps, and captain a brigade.

What are some examples of projects Brigades would focus on?

Deploying and populating open data platforms first comes to mind. Opening civic data is a vital need for open government and there is momentum behind fulfilling that need. Opening government data was the first thing Vivek Kundra did after President Obama issued the Open Government Directive. Since then open data platforms have not only appeared at the federal level in the form of data.gov but have also sprouted up in dozens of cities and counting. Brigade members can help us find out where open data exists and where it is needed. They can help us learn more about how open data is used, abused, and where it matters most. Members can even deploy their own open data platforms. While we aim to collaborate with government, Brigade members don’t have to wait on their city to launch an open data portal.

What advice do you have for those who want to build a successful, sustainable “civic hacking” community where they live?

Join the Brigade. I know I’m biased but one thing I’ve learned in my career and as a volunteer is that connecting to a network of practitioners is easier, more efficient, and more effective than starting in isolation. Anyone who wants civic hacking to succeed and be sustained where they live needs to learn from and share in the experiences of others who have done it. Connecting to a network will uncover resources you didn’t know existed. Connecting to a network will provide support when you need it most. Join a national movement and act locally. Join the Brigade.

Gov 2.0 Hero: Kevin Curry

Kevin Curry is Chief Scientist and Co-founder of Bridgeborn. He recently helped organize CityCamp Chicago to help address open government and Gov 2.0 issues at the local level.

What was your path to Gov 2.0?

My path to Gov 2.0 might be a case study in the power of the social Web; simple, scalable, and serendipitous. I sent Tim O’Reilly a link via Twitter to the paper Government Data and the Invisible Hand by David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William Zeller, & Edward Felten. I hadn’t yet met Tim but was and am still a fan of his “What is Web 2.0?” essay. Tim re-tweeted the link and started following me. A few days later he contacted me to ask if I might be interested in helping him organize the first Gov 2.0 Summit. I wasn’t sure how I could help, but saying “Yes” was a no-brainer. I’ve been involved with Gov 2.0 ever since.

What area of government offers the biggest opportunity for improvement via Web 2.0 tools?

Municipalities. Local governments have the most direct impact on our day-to-day lives. They affect our immediate physical environments; our homes, our schools, our commutes. Sure, we pay federal and state income taxes, but our sales taxes, real estate taxes, vehicle registration fees, parking fees, sanitation fees, and the like, all go to local governments. It’s our city councils and school boards who decide what services we get (or not). Web 2.0 can help at the municipal level in a number of ways; by virtualizing council meetings on the Web, by using tools that allow citizens to vote priorities up or down and see both sides of issues in one place, and by opening up crime and other key indicator data to better inform local populations, for examples.

What’s the killer app that will make Gov 2.0 the norm instead of the exception?

Gov 2.0 isn’t about apps. Gov 2.0 is about government as a platform. Government provides infrastructure. Citizens provide apps. In the same way that a power utility provides the grid and a water utility provides plumbing, government should provide an infrastructure for citizens to access and use government information. The Web provides the logical infrastructure for information access, broadband vendors provide the physical infrastructure, and government provides the legal framework for how government information can and should be used. Government also collects and manages enormous amounts of data. Assuming reasonable exceptions, this data belongs to the public and should be made available to the public according to the 8 Principles of Open Government Data. We need to change some of the laws and policies to reflect how the Web can be used to improve our ability to connect citizens more easily with government. This may be especially true at the local level, where government has more direct impact on our daily lives. If government becomes platform, that will be the “killer app.”

What part of Gov 2.0 most excites you?

The part of Gov 2.0 that excites me most is government-as-platform at the local level. Jen Pahlka and I started CityCamp because we recognized that municipal government was missing from the Gov 2.0 conversation (state government, too). Municipal governments have the greatest affect on our daily lives. I want my hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia to adopt Open 311 so people can report work requests through SeeClickFix using a GPS and camera enabled phone instead of calling an office or filling out a form. I would like to see something like Localocracy used to survey the citizenry for pro/con input to city-wide decisions. I want my police department to start publishing their crime data as linked open data, perhaps through an API, instead of a clunky HTML table that shows exactly 15 of 20,000+ records at a time. I want events published in standard iCal formats that can be aggregated through cloud apps like Jon Udell’s Elmcity Project. My good friend for over 20 year is the Director of Beach Events. Every month he sends me and a hundred other people an email containing a Word document listing the events. I need to go teach him and his colleagues how to improve that process such that it becomes easier for him to produce and everyone to consume. We’re working on it here in Virginia Beach, and I encourage others to do the same where they live.

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