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“A Peace Corps for Geeks”: Better Government with Drupal

Generally, I’m not easily impressed but I was quickly taken by Code for America. www.codeforamerica.org/ The organization correctly considers itself a “New Kind of Public Service. Helping Governments work better for everyone with the people and power of the web”. I think they’re living up to their high expectations with a focus and determination we need more of in government today. Recently, I connected with Abhi Nemani, Director of Strategy and Communications, to learn more about CfA and how it leverages technology for its success. His comments are below.

Tell us about your organization/company – history and mission

Code for America is a nonprofit devoted to helping local governments work better for everyone with the people and the power of the web. With inflated populations and dwindling budgets, governments have fewer resources now more than ever; Code for America helps demonstrate ways of doing more, with less. Through our fellowship program, we connect civic-minded developers and designers with city governments to innovate. This year, we have 26 fellows working with eight cities.

We realized that there was a need for structure around information sharing in this space, so we created the Code for America Commons to help cities share their solutions, knowledge, and best practices. Like a “CrunchBase for civic tech,” it’s a community-edited catalogue of civic technology that tracks what’s working, where. Launched in 2011 as Civic Commons and incubated as a collaborative experiment in civic innovation in partnership with Open Plans, the CfA Commons has evolved to become a standalone, ongoing product offering at Code for America. www.civiccommons.org/

Who is your main audience?

Our audience is government technologists, civic hackers, and entrepreneurs in the civic space. The Commons is an information resource for the broader Code for America community. Since it’s a wiki, anyone can add to or edit the Commons.

What is the competitive landscape?

We fill a fairly unique niche; the reason we started the CfA Commons was that nobody was filling this particular need for information exchange around civic tech. There are a few similar efforts around cataloguing technology for civic engagement — notably ParticipateDB (http://participatedb.com/ ) and the Digital Engagement Cookbook (http://www.digitalengagement.org/ ) — but we see these initiatives as complementary to our work rather than competitive.

What various types of site and mobile or other technology do you use and why?

We use Pantheon, a web development and hosting platform for Drupal. It uses a git-based workflow to manage Drupal modules and themes, so it’s easy to make site updates quickly from a local development environment.

We also use Olark to live chat with visitors on the site, and Google Groups to power our community forums. Both are very lightweight and simple to use.

(Editor’s note: Acquia also uses Olark for the chat functionality on our site. Check them out at www.olark.com)

Do you consider your use of technology to be a competitive necessity today?

Definitely. There wouldn’t be a Code for America Commons without technology!

Who internally makes your technology choices?

We’re a very flat organization and a tech-savvy group, so it’s a pretty democratic process. We do have a Lead Technical Strategist and Evangelist who is involved with a lot of the decision making.

Do you have examples of how readers use technology/your site?

A core use case is city officials using the site to catalog what’s being used in their city and find out what’s being used elsewhere. For example, a staff member from Montgomery County, Maryland recently joined to create an entry for their department and update it to reflect some of the software they’re using internally.

Are there any players in your arena/sector that you admire or benchmark as smart users of technology?

We’re constantly impressed by the innovation we see from the city governments that we partner with. Beyond just launching apps, they are actively embracing open source philosophies, adopting lean development methodologies, and creating real structural change within their departments to encourage innovation. For example, Honolulu’s IT department recently provided Ruby on Rails and Linux training to their staff in anticipation of our fellowship. Those are the kinds of shifts in thinking that will catalyze sustainable change through use of technology in City Hall.

Why did you select Drupal?

First of all, it’s open source. We wanted to take the opportunity to adhere to our own principle of reusing available open source technology when possible. The core message of the Code for America Commons is one of sharing knowledge and tools — making it easier for municipal leaders to build on the work of others and apply existing tools to common problems. Since Drupal is a robust, open source CMS that has been widely adopted for government use, we think using it to build the Commons is a powerful reinforcement of our core message.

It’s also very flexible and customizable. We value the ability to easily grow and continuously iterate based on user feedback. There are many useful and important features right out of the box (e.g. user profiles), and a great supporting developer community for other plugins and features.

How do you see your site/offerings evolving over the near and medium terms?

As the community adds more and more content to the Commons, we want to improve our categorization system for app and organization entries to make it easier for users to browse and identify apps that suit their needs.

Is there any advice you could offer our readers who may be facing similar issues with their businesses?

Designing with your users in mind is something we talk about a lot at Code for America. We ask our fellows to do 100 interviews during their city residencies before they start building products to get a better idea of what the city needs. Talk to your target audience, listen to what they need and want to use your product for, and respond to those needs.

Abhi, thanks for taking the time to tell us more about Code for America. What you’re doing is inspirational and timely given the challenges all governments, large and small, face today. I encourage all readers to check out this great organization. http://codeforamerica.org/

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