Volunteering can be an extremely rewarding activity, but for many, it’s difficult to find a volunteer project that is also intrinsically enjoyable. For a geek, this may seem especially hard. With this in mind, I started searching for opportunities to volunteer that didn’t necessarily involve sorting old clothes at a thrift store or walking dogs at the SPCA. Surely there were more “geeky” ways to do good in the community. With a few well phrased search terms, my investigation was rewarded. Code for America is an organization that provides a way for computer programmers, web developers, and others to help cities make information such as bus routes, crime rates, and non-emergency phone numbers, among many others, available to the people who live in them.
CfA is divided into two different sections. The Fellowship is an eleven month program in which recruits, called fellows, build open-source apps for their host cities. Fellows are paid a small stipend while they are in the program, during which they travel to their host cities and find a problem to solve. They then spend the rest of the program in San Francisco to finish working on their project. For instance, in 2012, Chicago was one of the sponsor cities for Code for America. Their CfA team worked to make their system to handle civic requests (such as fixing potholes) available to a wider range of people, since many of the general public didn’t even know that they could report these types of problems. This year, ten new host cities have been chosen, and the application for fellows closed on July 31.
In 2012, CfA launched the Brigade portion of their organization. The brigades splintered from the Fellowship in multiple cities simultaneously; usually either in a city that had previously had a team from the Fellowship, or else a city that simply could not afford to sponsor a team. In the brigade cities, small and not-so-small groups get together on Civic Hack Nights once a week to work on projects to help their communities. In one short year these brigades have already covered a lot of ground with projects such as Textizen, which started as a Civic Hack project from CfA, but has now become a commercial product.
I was privileged to sit in on one of these brigade meetings held in the city of Virginia Beach by Code for Hampton Roads. This brigade works in both Virginia Beach and its sister city Norfolk, and the group organizers alternate weekly meetings in each city. This particular brigade is headed up by two men. Kevin Curry, the head organizer for Code for Hampton Roads, is also the national director of the Code for America Brigade, and he reminded me immediately of Jeff Daniels. According to all the hackers at the meeting, Kevin knows everyone. Literally. Everyone. Bret Fisher, co-organizer, was friendly and welcoming, even after I explained that I could not code to save my life, but that I was actually a word geek.
I’ll admit, I was intimidated at first… until it took twenty minutes for six highly intelligent programmers and front and back-end developers to check into MeetUp. Then I relaxed quite a bit. The primary focus of the evening was a mobile app that would help Hampton Roads public transportation riders locate their bus no matter where they are (or where the bus is). The app is mostly complete, and Kevin and another wordsmith named Beth were working on the press release. The presence of another editor made me feel much more at ease and promised that there would be opportunity for many different kinds of input with the group. Another project in the works is a mapping system that would interpret police data to show the likelihood of a criminal incident in any area of the city. As Kevin put it, cities can pay IT departments, but the citizenry doesn’t have that option. The Code for America Brigade focuses on making public information available to the average citizen in a way that can be easily understood and applied.
The brigade calls for coders, designers, social media coordinators, and civic leaders and organizers, so there is room for geeks like me who cannot necessarily help design a mobile app. It is easy to join: either visit the Code for America website and find the local brigade, or type “Code for [city]” into a search engine. The MeetUp site makes it easy to know exactly where and when the next meeting in the area will be and provides contact info for the local organizer. I’m excited to add Code for America to my list of volunteer projects (which, yes, includes walking dogs from the SPCA), and I encourage my fellow geeks to get involved in this or similar projects.