In Boston, there's a fire hydrant named Al.
The city, subject to heavy snowfalls, has a problem keeping fire hydrants accessible to emergency workers and wanted a creative way to recruit willing volunteers to clear the snow. To help, the city turned to a group that bills itself as a "Peace Corps for Geeks."
The San Francisco-based group, called Code for America, created an interactive, almost gamelike application that gives virtual hydrant-naming rights to the person who tends to the hydrant the most. Without the program, the city would be left with the burden of clearing the snow.
The Boston app was so successful that other cities quickly followed suit, including Honolulu, which modified the program to encourage citizens to monitor for defective tsunami warning sirens.
Code for America brings fresh eyes to cities often wedded to their own procedures, says Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. "Every system is hackable in the best sense of the word. What's needed is a culture of entrepreneurship – one in which you try quickly and accept failure quickly if it happens."
In tough economic and budgetary environments, cities are looking for ways to be a lot more efficient. "In some [cities] it can take a year just to open a purchase order," says Ms. Pahlka.
The idea isn't unique to Code for America. Here in San Francisco, a group of technology enthusiasts – many of whom were frustrated public transportation riders – convened for a 48-hour hack-athon to develop an iPad app called SMARTmuni. Their aim: Replace the pen-and-paper system of rerouting delayed buses and trolleys.
The service, championed by the nonprofit San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, is being tested by the transportation authority.
"Government is what we do together," says Pahlka. "Yet many citizens don't feel connected to their government and often distrust bureaucracies." Code for America deploys fellows, or largely unpaid volunteers, with extensive backgrounds in technology.
User-experience strategist and technology designer Elizabeth Hunt was sent to Philadelphia to develop an app that gives residents simple how-to guides for accessing city services. "If you wanted to host a block party on your street, that information was not easily available before," she says. In that example, the service she helped create combines a bit of party planning with information on navigating the many city laws and agencies involved.
Code for America still struggles with how to keep the spirit of entrepreneurship alive in a city once a project ends. "Sustainability is definitely an important aspect of every project," says Pahlka. The group works with the city to find internal staff, look for ways to create a small business to drive the project, or even turn the project over to another nonprofit. "Eventually I'd like people to love government like they love their iPhone," says Pahlka.