Whether you’re Republican, Democrat or somewhere in between, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Government is broken. According to Jennifer Pahlka and the staff at Code for America (CfA), technology may be the way to fix it.
Pahlka, who founded CfA in 2011, is probably best known for her TED talk “Coding a better government” (watch it above), in which she encouraged people to use their hands–not just their voices–to change the way government is run. The non-profit, now in its third year of operation, is currently accepting applicants for its 2014 Fellowship Program.
What is a CfA Fellow?
Each year, CfA, which Pahlka describes as a “Peace Corp for geeks,” selects a crop of talented designers, programmers and other professionals who are passionate about technology and making a difference in government to become CfA fellows. Fellows commit 11 months of their life to the San Francisco-based program, during which time they receive a crash course in government 2.0, spend time living in the city they will be coding for and getting to know people and government officials there, and then return to San Francisco to work with a team to develop and implement applications for that city.
At the end of the 11 month period, staff from host cities and other interested individuals gather in San Francisco for the CfA Summit, where each team demos their applications and works with host city staff to train them on how to use their applications effectively.
“Part of the process of building the apps during the fellowship is ensuring that the civic IT team can maintain it,” says CfA Senior Marketing Manager Dana Oshiro. “In some cases, we’ve trained city IT employees in programming languages like Ruby on Rails. In other cases, startups like Textizen are hired to maintain an app or groups like the Department of Better Technology are hired to do the job.”
Why become a CfA Fellow?
For folks who are just beginning their career, joining CfA presents an attractive opportunity: a modest ($35,000) stipend, a $500 professional development budget, travel expenses, health insurance and more experience and networking opportunities than some people get during their entire career. However, as Oshiro points out, becoming a CfA fellow can also be beneficial for people who are mid-career and beyond:
“We’ve had a number of people join the fellowship and take time off from their jobs to do something really meaningful for their communities. In some cases they’re test driving a career in civic technology before jumping in. Michelle Lee is one such person. Even before joining the fellowship she was credited with inventing the Google Docs product Google forms. From there she joined the fellowship, worked with the City of Philadelphia on citizen engagement and has since spun her fellowship project into a startup company.”
Other ways to get involved
For those who can’t make an 11-month commitment to the Fellowship Program, there are still a few ways to get involved with CfA and improve your local government. Other than donations, CfA encourages civic-minded technology professionals to start or join a CfA Brigade in their city.
“Local Brigades add capacity and sustainability to civic tech,” Oshiro says. “We work with Brigade volunteers to stand up existing apps and work on existing datasets. These brigades host events, meetings and share resources.”
There are also code repositories that volunteers can contribute to, but according to Oshiro, volunteering doesn’t just have to be code-related:
“We’re also looking for talented designers, researchers, product managers and those with a talent for documentation,” she says.