Live From SXSW: A TFA Model for Coders

Teach For America started as a way to get some of the smartest college graduates to teach students in some of the neediest schools. Whether you believe in the TFA methodology or not, it’s persuaded people to work in less-lucrative jobs because they think it’s the right thing to do.

The TFA model is now being applied to computer programming, through Code for America, a fellowship program that places some of the brightest young computer scientists into local government positions. The goal, like TFA, is for the participants to help solve some of the inefficiencies of local government as their civic duty.

“We’re not going to fix government unless we also fix citizenship,” said Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and executive director of Code for America, which began its second fellowship year in January.

On Tuesday, Pahlka delivered the final keynote speech at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, which this blog has been covering the past week. Pahlka admitted that at a conference known best for the hype bestowed upon the hottest new technology, trying to fix, say, the government procurement process isn’t that sexy.

But, she notes, $140 billion is spent on government technology per year. So there’s money to be made selling to government, but there’s also money to be saved. That was quickly evident last year, as the 20 fellows working for cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and Seattle identified some of the major civic problems (a few of them education-related) and began developing web applications for them.

Boston Public Schools used to publish and distribute to parents a 28-page brochure outlining the city’s school-choice regulations. In two and a half months, the Code for America fellows there developed Discover BPS, a database and mapping tool for parents to browse the schools their children are eligible to attend. Pahlka was told the project would have taken two years and cost $2 million if commissioned through the government’s traditional procurement process.

Other education-related applications include a mobile application in Boston that tracks school buses and ClassTalk, a classroom communication tool for teachers and students. Education departments suffering under heavy bureaucracy and costly technology contracts take note. (And through new innovation officers and innovation offices, many education departments are taking note.)

But it’s not that easy. This is a bureaucracy, after all. The initial Code for America program was planned for Washington as well, but the fellows were asked to leave after Mayor Vincent C. Gray took office, Pahlka said. Plus, governments are notorious for being slow to release data, a necessity for any programmer, she said.

And there’s also the retention concern that follows Teach for America. For instance, the project lead for ClassTalk, Scott Silverman, now works for Airbnb, the online tool that facilitates temporary home rentals. Ultimately, he could learn different things by working at a Silicon Valley company than in a government job, where he would be the resident programming expert, he explained to me in an email exchange.

“I wanted more insight into the way small, product-driven tech companies operate,” he wrote. “With the current state of technology in U.S. cities, I wouldn’t have been able to gain this type of experience there. When and if I decide to work in government, I’d like to offer expertise through first-hand experience.”

Pahlka said her goal is for this program to spark a general sense of citizenship among Americans. She announced the Code for America Brigade, a program she likens to volunteer firefighting that allows programmers and developers to dedicate time to solving civic problems.

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