There's an app for that, or at least there will be

There's an app for that, or at least there will be

March 2nd, 2014 in Opinion Times

Everyone laughs about how 3-year-olds these days are more technologically savvy than their parents. And most of us have learned to love anything that has "an app for that."

Here in Chattanooga, February marked the beginning of a city-led foray into a technological culture change for both Chattanooga government and Chattanooga citizens' use of government. The offshoot will be "apps for that" and hopefully much more.

The process began with three young computer software and design geniuses who are 2014 fellows with Code for America, a national non-partisan, nonprofit tech group founded in 2009 to bring web-industry professionals to work with city governments to promote openness.

The three - Jason Denizac, Jeremia Kimelman and Giselle Sperber - have spent the last month here.

They saw first-hand what snow does to a Southern city. They discovered pimento cheese and delicious barbecue and fried food, but were also delighted to also find how easy it is to eat vegetarian and healthy food here.

They were awed by our small city's (compared to their New York and San Francisco stomping grounds) conservation ethic and environmental consciousness.

Most of all, they said, they were impressed by the attitude of "collaboration" they saw among government groups, foundations and organizations to tackle problems such as strengthening our electrical grid with fiber optics and then growing a Gig with an Internet that they tested and found "really is faster." Denizac said the fact that the city and EPB pioneered this here and now markets it, "is impressive" and indicative of what the three call Chattanooga's "culture of resourcefulness."

All of the small and not-so-small things the three already have observed - along with hundreds of interviews and dozens of tours - will be what they use as a foundation from now through November to help Chattanoogans build a network of technology solutions.

The opportunities are myriad - like networking information on neighborhoods and vacant lots to help shrink the affordable housing gap, like stitching transportation data and workplace schedules together to close wage and culture gaps, like using public librarians, who are longtime and natural archivists, to host an open online information portal for city information.

Apps for that, we might say. Apps to help us click our way to a better Chattanooga by linking bureaucracy, enhancing transparency and tapping into the immediacy of real life.

"We're learning as we go," said Sperber. "But we all have an ambition to do good, and to help Chattanooga with what Chattanooga wants."

Last 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 three techies will work with us to develop open-source Web apps for city services and other innovations. 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.

Things already are happening here, thanks to this push. Last week, some members of the Chattanooga technology brigade formed to work with the Code for America techies created a wiki where Chattanoogans can post great things they like in the city: Fun, safe places to walk a dog, oldest trees in the city, best hamburgers. Just another website? Well, maybe. But look at Daviswiki.org, a page for Davis, Calif., developed by students at the University of California at Davis. Pretty much anything you'd like to know about Davis is there.

Kimelman, a techie fellow from San Francisco, said he is most hopeful that their Code for America work here goes beyond data and bytes. He wants to see it catalyze a culture change for bringing citizen involvement into government.

These techies are dreamers in more ways than one. And we'll all be the beneficiaries.