Could US-like public service coding to build ‘mutual’ apps that benefit local communites work here?

By David Bicknell

A recent article on O’Reilly Radar has discussed the creation of coding challenges and competitions in the US to build government apps that benefit the wider community.  

It discusses a recent ‘hackathon’ in Portland,  which invited local developers to identify not only the type of interactions required between the city and residents, but also to coordinate and collaborate on the essential feature set needed to capture and display those interactions.

According to the O’Reilly Radar piece, the applications presented at the end of the Portland hackathon were:

  • A mapping program that shows how much one’s friends know each other, clustering people together who know each other well
  • An information retrieval program that organizes movies to help you find one to watch
  • A natural language processing application that finds and displays activities related to a particular location
  • An event planner that lets you combine the users of many different social networks, as well as email and text messaging users (grand prize winner)
  • A JSON parser written in Lua communicating with a GTK user interface written in Scheme (just for the exercise)
  • A popularity sorter for the city council agenda, basing popularity on the number of comments posted
  • A JavaScript implementation of LinkedIn Circles
  • A geographic display of local institutions matching a search string, using the Twilio API
  • A visualisation of votes among city council members
  • An aggregator for likes and comments on Facebook and (eventually) other sites
  • A resume generator using LinkedIn data
  • A tool for generating consistent location names for different parts of the world that call things by different terms

“Because traditional incentives can never bulk up enough muscle to make it worthwhile for a developer to productise a government app, the governments can try taking the exact opposite approach and require any winning app to be open source. That’s what Portland’s CivicApps does.

“Because nearly any app that’s useful to one government is useful to many, open source should make support a trivial problem. For instance, take Portland’s city council agenda API, which lets programmers issue queries like “show me the votes on item 506” or “what was the disposition of item 95?” On the front end, a city developer named Oscar Godson created a nice wizard, with features such as prepopulated fields and picklists, that lets staff quickly create agendas. The data format for storing agendas is JSON and the API is so simple that I started retrieving fields in 5 minutes of Ruby coding. And at the session introducing the API, several people suggested enhancements.”

The article refers to Code for America,  a public service organisation for programmers, which enlists the talent of the web industry into public service to use their skills to solve core problems facing communities.  All projects are open source, but developers are hooked up with projects for a long enough period to achieve real development milestones.

In the words of Code for America, “we help passionate technologists leverage the power of the internet to make governments more open and efficient, and become civic leaders able to realise transformational change with technology.” A sort of coding mutual then (OK, I’m stretching definitions a little)

Here is a link to a page entitled What We Can do for Your City,  which discusses how top talent is recruited from the technology industry to give a year building civic software that will help cities “cut costs, work smarter, and engage more with their citizens.”

Admittedly, not all things travel well across the pond, but could such an organisation, concept, idea possibly work here, with modifications?

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