Programming for the public service with open data

3 min reading
Developers / 11 February 2014
Programming for the public service with open data


How can a municipality, a state or an entire country be benefited thanks to the collaboration of a team of civic programmers, designers and innovators with authorities to solve a public problem? A global movement of activists is experimenting, sharing methods and replicating successes from here and there to try to provide their response in different places around the globe.   

They are a kind of Peace Corps for geeks. The comparison is attributed to a newspaper article, and Code for America has decided to adopt it because its members identify with it. This is an American organization that donates technological applications to the administrative powers of cities and municipalities to help them provide better public services to their citizens. It therefore recruits developers and experts in computer technologies to train citizens who leave their regular jobs for 12 months. During this period, volunteers enroll to receive accelerated training on the intricacies of institutions and learn to detect obstacles in their benefits to citizens that can be solved with a technical solution. Often these are problems and approaches in which administrative officers and civil servants had not noticed previously. Then, in collaboration, they develop an application that should address their needs.

What kind of problems do they solve? In New York city and Louisville (Kentucky) they have worked on a unified data platform so the justice system can base prosecution decisions on better information. In Las Vegas, the fellows have helped the city to be able to better distribute commercial areas based on data. In the case of the town of San Mateo, they have made progress in implementing an interface that helps citizens consult the social benefits that may apply in a particular case. Any municipality can benefit from these applications. The City of Bloomington (Indiana) is the institution that has been most involved: it has created 5 and uses another 15 applications in areas ranging from transportation, recycling, fiscal monitoring and maintenance of parks. A marketplace called Code for America-Commons provides access to more than 660 apps that are already being applied in 384 cities nationwide. To inspire and guide other agents of change in local government Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation has been published, which is a compendium of case studies.

The apps created by members of Code for America are open source. Some arise from a business acceleration program and materialize in entrepreneurial initiatives and paid apps. For example, an online application that allows administrations to share information on supply and demand in public procurement. Comparing prices, makes it easier for administrations to save public money with advantageous acquisitions. And in a single interface suppliers, paying for use, access the public demand of more than 1,700 organizations.

Can the Code for America model be extrapolated to other places? In Europe, Code for Europe has been so proposed on a smaller scale. In 2014 it has working teams with the authorities in Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome and Helsinki. In 2013 they created 8 applications. Like its American counterpart, it has a public showcase: Europe Commons. This states, for example, that in Spain the open government platform is used and citizen participation in the Basque Country, Irekia. Also in the Ministry of the Presidency of the Government of Asturias, with Moreover, the software Alaveteli to send information requests to public agencies is being implemented in Spain on the platforms and, which drive Access Info Europe and Fundación Ciudadana Civio.

Codeando México addresses civic innovation in a manner similar to Code for America, as a facilitator and democratizing innovation. Its challenges platform invites candidates to participate in more than 50 projects that address issues such as traffic problems to water supply or providers of public works; however, they still need to involve more participants and work on many more open datasets.

Meanwhile, the African continent is experiencing a time of increasing civic initiatives based on new technologies and open data activism. “The nature of the problem is supply and demand. Governments and activists provide data and services to the citizens instead of listening to what they really want or need. This tension is reflected in how we define this movement,” Code for Africa argues on its website: an ecosystem of open data more focused on demand and needs of the citizen. Code for Africa already promotes this revolution in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa and in 2014 it is expected to be implemented in Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia and Uganda. Its achievements include creating the largest repository of open data on the continent (openAFRICA), a base of “released” documents (sourceAFRICA) and a civic code repository (codeAFRICA).

Each with its own focus and its peculiarities, all these initiatives by civic programmers for the common good coincide that opening data is necessary but not sufficient. Its success or failure depends primarily on its ability to correctly identify problems that it is time to solve as well as opening a fluid collaboration between activists and government employees at the earliest possible stage. The revolution that they want to lead, experts say, will not be as much about opening data as in those who take advantage of this raw material to generate impact and changes in society.

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