Citizens crack the government code – by invitation

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Imagine what can be achieved when the boundary between the Government and citizens is dissolved. In Hong Kong, where the dividing line is marked with police barricades bound with plastic strips and adorned with umbrellas, it can be hard to envision, at least for now.

But through Code for America (CfA), Catherine Bracy, Director of Community Organising, has seen one future means of citizen-government cooperation. CfA was founded in 2009 and dedicated to use open source technology to make use of existing Government data to improve life through the efforts of volunteer citizens. In an exclusive with Harbour Times, Ms Bracy talked about the experience of transforming local Government through citizen engagement.

Building trust

Initially resistant, bureaucrats found it hard to hold out indefinitely against the benefits on offer from citizen coder-programmers.

“What we found is that most public servants want to do their jobs better. They work in the public sector because they want to help people,” says Ms Bracy. “It is not easy, certainly not easy. Streamlining bureaucracy is really hard.”

The key to convincing Government is to build trust. “You have to build something that can demonstrate the power of open data to solve a problem the Government identified,” Ms Bracy explains. Next move is to involve the Government in the process. “They need to feel ownership and see concrete results.”

Speaking at TED last year, Ms Bracy shared an example of how local governments can be ‘convinced’. In early 2013, Mexico City Government entered a contract with a software firm to build an app to track bills in the Congress. The original plan envisioned the development of an app that would take 2 years and cost $9.3m USD to build. People were angry with the Government squandering away a large sum of money on a relatively simple app.

But instead of going to the street, they created an organisation called Codeando Mexico and issued a challenge. “Together we can go beyond angry tweeting, towards fixing the world on a Saturday night over some tequilas,” the group said and asked programmers to build something better and cheaper. The group offered to build the app for $930 USD – a fraction of the original contract price. Within 10 days, there were 173 apps submitted by programmers and 5 are still available today in the app store, fulfilling the intended purpose. The Mexico City Government finally dropped the contract.

Open the data

There are certain things the Government has to do before the data is opened. First, it has to change data collection practices. Traditional means of using papers to store data has to be replaced by accessible and readable digital storage, a cheaper and greener way to handle data (see Harbour Times Issue 4, our Open Data special, for details). Second, and more importantly, the Government needs to help citizens use the data, for example, encouraging entrepreneurs to make use of the data and build solutions on existing problems. Also, the Government can take the initiative to make use of the data and improve its services.

However, there still are genuine roadblocks to open data developers. The time and effort required to translate data from paper to digital formats can be overwhelming due to the volume of all data collected in the past. Second, while developers are translating old data, new data keeps coming in and that creates challenges to maintaining the overall integrity of the dataset. Ms Bracy described the challenge as akin to “building an airplane as it is flying”.

Engaging the bureaucrats

CfA is particularly successful in collaborating with the Government at the city level and such interaction could be adopted here in Hong Kong. CfA’s annual Fellowship program draws in programmers and those without tech savvy (including designers, product managers, community organisers, and writers) to form a team to work with city governments across the States. “We need everyone, not just technologists, we need citizens who care about the places they live,” Ms Bracy says.

Prior to working with data to build solutions, CfA’s Fellows discuss with the city governments for 6 months to research and identify a problem and then immerse themselves into that particular problem to find a solution. The criteria for choosing a project is based on the urgency of the problem, its ‘tech-solvability’, likelihood that Fellows can easily build a prototype within 6 months and can be easily maintained by the city governments, and whether or not the solution will have a real impact to citizens.

In the Fellowship program last year in San Francisco, CfA decided to do something about homelessness, so the Fellows took a month to identify problems that homeless people encountered and chose a problem easily solved with open source technology. They found that 30% of the recipients of the welfare beneficiaries had to re-enroll due to problems in their applications. It was a huge time-waster for applicants and the Human Services Agency of San Francisco. So for the next 6 months, the Fellows worked closely with the Agency to streamline services and make it easier for people to apply for welfare benefits.

The collaboration is normally contractual and CfA’s fellows are paid by the local governments. This model has been used in 15 to 20 countries by CfA’s partners throughout the globe.

Finding the gold

Ms Bracy thought of becoming a journalist but ended up working in the field of technology policy by accident. To her, journalism is to inform community and strengthen democracy which technology can have an equal role: “Technology in the Internet being the place where we could create transparency, use the tools to strengthen democracy and raise voices that haven’t been heard before.”

So much can be done by technology and open data is hardly rocket science. It only requires the Government to make the data collected available to the public and in a machine-readable format. The rest is left to the citizens to turn it into gold. “Citizens are the Government. It is really our responsibility to make sure the Government works well,” says Ms Bracy.

The good news is that some in our public sector understand the concept and welcome the input. Ms Bracy visited the HKSAR’s Efficiency Unit on Monday where about 30 civil servants from various departments got the message. Hong Kong Government currently has the Data.One project that makes data available for citizen programmers, coders and activists (see Harbour Times Issue 4). In Hong Kong, a group of programmers and open data activists founded Open Data Hong Kong last year and hold regular meeting. But it is only a start and CfA’s programmes show how to make use of open data on a much larger scale.

Code for America’s ethos may provide a path to solutions where problems are too big to be solved by one party, the government, alone. More participation from different sectors, if not everyone, is required in the process of making the community stronger.

Currently, the wall between the Government and citizens is at the root of the occupation on the streets. It may be that technology can enable a means to bridge the gap between the Government and its citizens.