Code for America chief of staff sees “civic startup ecosystem” emerging

Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., together are a 2013 Code for America partner city, and Abhi Nemani, the organization's chief of staff, shared his passion for more connected governments during the final afternoon of our Big Kansas City event last week. "We're trying to show what's possible for governments," Nemani said. The San

Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., together are a 2013 Code for America partner city, and Abhi Nemani, the organization’s chief of staff, shared his passion for more connected governments during the final afternoon of our Big Kansas City event last week.

“We’re trying to show what’s possible for governments,” Nemani said. The San Fransisco-based nonprofit aims to show cities how to better use the web to increase efficiency, transparency and citizen participation by embedding a team of volunteer fellows into the city for a year to listen, learn and help the city innovate by building mobile and web apps.

Code for America was founded in 2009 with the challenge, “How can you bring cities and technologies together to bring worth to a city?” Nemani said.

Bridging the gap

Nemani shared the story of Miss Rita, a New Orleans resident who volunteered several hours each day walking around the city tracking the status of abandoned houses. The mayor of New Orleans wanted to know what was happening with these houses, so he asked his CIO to build an app to track them. He was shocked when he learned it would take three years and $30 million dollars to accomplish. “Code for America came in and built an app for them in 6 weeks,” Nemani said.

Opening up new channels of communication is key. “The app proposes a new kind of more productive communication between the two groups that moves past angry and frustrated citizens on one end, and a paralyzed city on the other,” Fast Company Exist said about the Code for America app, Blight Status.

In Honolulu, a 2011 partner city, Code for America built Honolulu Answers to provide easy, direct answers for citizens’ most common questions of their local government. “This is building new experiences for citzens,” Nemani said. “It’s really changing the way that citizens interact with their government.”

Engaging citizens

There are nine cities partnered with Code for America in 2013, and each is assigned a small team of fellows. The team meets with key stakeholders, then returns to Code for America headquarters to review what they learned and create a project proposal.

Nemani explained how the fellowship is limited to a year, because they want to help local governments engage with their citizens, not do it for them. “We challenge citzens to think about how they can be more civically engaged,” he said. Asking them, “How can you use these platforms to make your city a better place?”

All Code for America projects are open source, stored on GitHub. “That’s one thing that our Brigade does is take those projects on GitHub and redeploy them,” Nemani said. The Code for America Brigade is an opportunity for local citizens to get involved in spreading Code for America’s mission.

The nonprofit recently launched the Code for America Accelerator, an open call to civic startups across the country. They had 235 applicants and chose seven for its first class.

“We’re seeing the emergence of a civic startup ecosystem,” Nemani said. Federal, state and local governments spend $140 billion a year on technology, he said, and there is a “huge opportunity to distrupt that market with new technology.”

Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., spent four weeks hosting three Code for America fellows last month. They return in April to begin working on an app.

Big Kansas City is a two-and-a-half-day event that aims to inspire, educate and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the heart of the Midwest. Produced by Silicon Prairie News, it’s part of the Big Series, the nation’s most ambitious events on innovation and entrepreneurship.


Credits: Video by Quadrant5. Snippet photo by Kenny Johnson Photography.

The Big Kansas City Video Series is presented by NIC, Inc.

NIC Inc. is the nation’s leading provider of official government portals, online services, and secure payment processing solutions. The company’s innovative eGovernment services help reduce costs and increase efficiencies for government agencies, citizens, and businesses across the country.


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