Giving Back — Opportunities for Developers

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The holidays are a time for giving. How can we, as developers, use our experience to give back to the community? What can we bring to the table? Our stock in trade allows us, through the internet, to connect many people. We can provide access to information, data, media, as well as a way for that information to be organized, filtered and sorted easily. All of this can be done relatively inexpensively compared to pre-internet days.

We live in a market driven society. Technological innovation has created opportunities for entrepreneurs and consumers alike. The public sector has lagged behind in taking advantage of the technological advances of the past 30 years, in particular, government services have been slow to rollout the kind of well designed, well connected digital infrastructure that is possible with modern technology. Whether due a shortage of investment, lack of interagency cooperation, or daunting security concerns, the government sector, in many cases, has not yet realized the potential of the modern internet and data technology to provide quality services for the members of society who most need help.

Code for America’s mission is ‘to make government work in the digital age’. The organization brings together expertise in both technology and government policy to identify areas where technology in government services that can be improved, making services more accessible, easier to use, and affordable. Code for America asks the question, “What if all government services were this good?”.

I recently attended a CFA symposium where participants focused on finding a solution to the siloing of data that exists between governmental jurisdictions — cities, counties and states, or between law enforcement and mental health service providers. Because data is not currently easily shared, the work of collecting the data is replicated each time a citizen interacts with a different agency, a time consuming and resource draining endeavor for both providers and clients. Moreover, without access to other agencies’ records, it’s difficult for any one agency to build a complete and nuanced history of their clients, a history that might be helpful in choosing the most appropriate services for the individual. Successful collaboration can have a powerfully positive outcome.

One speaker highlighted the benefits his municipality experienced working with its homeless population by designing a system that allowed for sharing of records between law enforcement and mental health service providers. When interacting with homeless individuals, shared records allow law enforcement personnel immediate access to the individual’s mental health history, including case worker contact. The case worker can be brought in early on to provide advice on the best course of action.

My take away was that, while agencies could appreciate the advantage of such an interconnected system, incompatible and often out dated proprietary system designs made the task daunting. Code for America offers to sit down with these organizations to come up with a workable solution.

Code for America encourages volunteers to help with their mission, a great way for developers to give back. The umbrella group supports local ‘brigades’ that focus on local issues. The past few months I’ve been participating in one of Open Austin’s (Code for America’s Austin brigade) projects to create an app that will allow low income tenants to document issues with their housing (photos and descriptions of maintenance issues). The data will be made available to a local low income housing advocacy group who can better assist resolving issues armed with well documented evidence.

Another project focuses on providing a simple, elegant way to address the shortage poll workers for recent elections, the result of the pandemic forcing a traditionally older volunteer force to stay at home. The county’s online form at that time was difficult to access and overly complicated. The Open Austin group developed a simple form that was hosted on the local chapter of the League of Women Voters’ website, sending requests directly to local election officials. Highlighted by local media, the site’s success was overwhelming and election officials eventually had to turn away volunteers, and was, in fact, adopted by the county itself for future elections!

As a developer, Open Austin provides me with the opportunity to work with other civically minded professionals who want to give back. The organization is well run and its all volunteer members, friendly and supportive. Code for America lists 92 brigades across the country. If you are interested in volunteering check their website for a brigade in your city. Have an idea that will help your local community, contact CFA and start your own brigade! Many helping hands make a better world.

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