Open, ask, click - City government: Online, over easy

Open, ask, click - City government: Online, over easy

December 22nd, 2013 in Opinion Times

We love pulling out our smart phones to get directions to lunch spots with free Internet. And it's equally pleasing to turn on your phone and make a movie or concert reservation.

But what if dealing with city government was so easy? What if you could schedule a brush pickup the same way? Or download an app to help you find what buses would take you from the Chattanooga Public Library to the mall and back?

And what if one click on the city's website would show you every tax dollar spent in the past 10 years on downtown sidewalks, and another click showed you where crimes occurred in your community in the past 24 hours or past week or this year?

That kind of connectivity is the goal of Open Chattanooga and Code for America. Open Chattanooga is a local grassroots technology group. Code for America is a national non-partisan, nonprofit tech group founded in 2009 to bring web-industry professionals to work with city governments to promote openness. In the next several months, the city and these groups will be working to truly make things click around here.

Think of it as a meeting of bureaucracy, transparency and immediacy. Think of it, too, as finding a purpose for the Gig. And a new way for the city's amazing fiber optics network to keep paying for itself. If the gig grid already saves money when the power goes off by using a series of electronic switches to isolate outages instead of an armada of EPB power trucks, then why can't these same kinds of technologies be applied to the needs of city government and its residents? Clearly it can - with enough imagination and know-how.

That's exactly the idea behind the coming year's initiative undertaken by city officials, Open Chattanooga and Code for America.

Back in September, Chattanooga was chosen as a finalist among 10 cities to enter a competitive fellowship that would pair the city government with the country's top developers and designers. We won, and now these techies will work with us to develop open source Web apps for city services. The city allocated $180,000 from the 2014 budget, and leveraged $120,000 from the Lyndhurst Foundation, $130,000 from the Benwood Foundation and several other smaller donations.

Last Monday, Code for America fellowship director Nicole Neditch met with local tech-savvy folks who make up Open Chattanooga and a group of ordinary citizens who've joined them to form a second local group that well-intentioned tech nerds are calling the Open Chattanooga Brigade. The brigade is now talking about solutions to real ordinary problems using nerdy know-how. They'll tackle things like apps to find bus routes and public art, and they'll help make public records easily available.

Neditch and Stacy Richardson, Mayor Andy Berke's senior adviser and chief policy officer, say they will start by looking at residents' needs because, after all, technology shouldn't just be designed and used to help city employees and processes. It, like police and firefighters and streets, should benefit us first. Along the way, it should streamline government by eliminating some of the one-on-one interactions to find records or services.

Designers and developers like Daniel Ryan, the front-end developer for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign and Chattanooga Technologist in Residence for the GigTank 2013, will try to configure an application to build a working budget so residents can go online and compare what their tax dollars buy them in city services. Potentially, residents could build their own hypothetical budgets.

Richardson says she hopes the program will change not just the culture of citizen involvement in city government, but also the culture of city government - from one of insular bureaucracy to a residents-first mentality.

At Monday's Open Chattanooga Brigade meeting, more than 100 people split into groups of four to talk about the city's needs. Take public safety, for instance. We know we're embracing a crime-fix initiative that will take the worst criminals off the street and offer the next crop of would-be-worst bad guys a carrot (way out of crime) or a stick (a very long prison sentence).

A mental health worker noted that the crime roundups are the easy part. The tricky part is how we match needed social services to them - the offer of jobs, the mental-health help, the remedial education and the mentoring, both to them and their children - all while the "system" has limited resources. How, she and others asked, can we use technology not only to streamline such an effort, but ensure it?

OK, so nobody said these city workers and techies are going to have an easy year here in Chattanooga.

But we'll have faith. Once upon a time not too long ago, Facebook, Google Earth and smart phones were just pipe dreams, too.