Jennifer Pahlka: Can You Code A Better Government? Can government be run like the Internet, permissionless and open? Coder and activist Jennifer Pahlka believes it can — and that apps are powerful ways to connect citizens to their governments.
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Can You Code A Better Government?

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Can You Code A Better Government?

Can You Code A Better Government?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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So we're talking about collaboration on the show today. And this next story is about a group called Code for America. You don't have to tell everybody, just between us? Did you ape that from Teach for America?

JENNIFER PAHLKA: Oh yeah, I tell everybody that.

RAZ: Oh you do? OK.

PAHLKA: Yeah, I mean, the whole beginning of it was - we were talking about Teach for America and we were like, it could be like a Code for America. And that just stuck.

RAZ: That's Code for America's founder, Jennifer Pahlka. And if you know Teach for America, it recruits young teachers to teach in cities where they're needed most. Well, Code for America does the same kind of thing for the tech world.

PAHLKA: So the other thing we call it is a Peace Corps for geeks.


PAHLKA: Peace Corps for geeks.

RAZ: Here's her TED talk.


PAHLKA: We select a few fellows every year and we have them work with city governments. Instead of sending them off into the third world, we send them into the wilds of City Hall. And there they make great apps, they work with city staffers, but really what they're doing is they're showing what's possible with technology today.

You know, everyone's got their story of frustration at the - I mean, the first one you always hear is like the DMV. It's also getting better in some places and people don't recognize that, that it isn't stuck in 1985.

RAZ: It's moved to like 1987.

PAHLKA: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I mean, you can do it by mail now, often. Often, you can do it online, but I think...


PAHLKA: You know, a lot of people have given up on government and if you're one of those people, I would ask that you reconsider because things are changing. Politics is not changing. Government is changing. And because government ultimately derives its power from us, remember we the people, how we think about it is going to affect how that change happens.

RAZ: And so in 2011, in Boston as happens so often in government, the city had a problem everybody knew about, but nobody could solve.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: Jonathan, people there really hit the jackpot.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: Well, it's one of those jackpots they hit, Jack, that nobody seems to want to celebrate - 24 inches in our area. They'll be working through the night...

RAZ: This was the snowpocalypse that hit the East Coast in 2011. Two feet of snow dropped in Boston. The problem...


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: That much snow that needs to get shoved out of the way - you create, not just snow piles, you create small snow hills like the one here I'm standing on.

ERIK MICHAELS-OBER: And we arrived and there was just a massive snowstorm, I think, the night after we got there. And the whole city was shut down.

RAZ: That's Erik Michaels-Ober.

MICHAELS-OBER: And I was a 2011 Code for America fellow.

RAZ: One of Jennifer Pahlka's Peace Corps geeks. So snowpocalypse 2011, Erik shows up to City Hall...

PAHLKA: Where they were discussing the fact that when they plow the streets, fire hydrants that, you know, already had a bunch of snow on them were actually completely covered, sometimes in mounds and mounds of snow. And...

MICHAELS-OBER: It was a problem that they had and wanted to do something about.

RAZ: So Erik, the programmer, he did the math and in Boston there are...

MICHAELS-OBER: ...13,000 fire hydrants across the city. And they actually already had the data set. You know, they'd gone around the city with GPS and said, OK, here is a fire hydrant, here's a fire hydrant, here's a fire hydrant...

RAZ: So Erik sat down at his computer he wrote some code...

MICHAELS-OBER: So it was a pretty simple app, I mean, I think I built the first version of it in a weekend.

RAZ: It was an app that worked with Google Maps where you could see every single fire hydrant on a map. And then if you live near one you could volunteer to shovel it out when it snowed. It's called Adopt-a-Hydrant. So let me ask you about Al. Who is Al?

PAHLKA: Al was the first fire hydrant that was adopted in 2011.

RAZ: So when you adopt your fire hydrant, you get to name it. You agree to dig it out when it snows and if you don't, somebody can steal it from you. So it's like a game. And hundreds of people in Boston signed up.

PAHLKA: Eight months later, this one guy Forest Frizzell - who was the deputy IT director for the city and county of Honolulu...

RAZ: Hi, Forest.


RAZ: That's Forest.

FRIZZELL: I remember seeing Adopt-a-Hydrant and I was like, wow, that's a really great idea. And so I was like, hey, can we reuse that code?

PAHLKA: And everyone was like - I'm not sure I see the relevance.

FRIZZELL: Like, well, you really don't have to worry about snow in Honolulu.

PAHLKA: And Forest said, no, we have a problem with tsunami sirens.

FRIZZELL: Problems with them being vandalized, primarily that the batteries were being stolen out of them.

RAZ: And so Forest thought, well, what if you could adopt a tsunami siren, like if you're out on the beach and you're...

FRIZZELL: ...Walking your dog, going on your morning jog, or whatever and you notice that, you know, it's been tampered with...

RAZ: ...You could just notify the city through the app. And then, when the sirens get tested each month...

FRIZZELL: ...They'll actually send you an email alerting you and say, hey, be prepared...

RAZ: You know, you just listen up. You make sure everything is working. So Forest built that app, and it worked. Out of hundreds of sirens in Honolulu...

FRIZZELL: ...The adoption rate is about 75 percent.

RAZ: Now you can imagine the potential here because the way the code is written, there's a folder with a file and it and that file contains the word hydrant. And all you have to do is change that word to sidewalk or storm drain or tsunami siren. And Jennifer Pahlka says a lot of cities are trying this.

PAHLKA: Everything that works on the Internet depends on a lot of people collaborating, but there's also these rules that you see across all the really successful platforms. Many, many, many more people consume the information or benefit from the information than actually contribute the information. But I think the goal really is that we can get more and more people involved. Some of them will be very, very lightweight involvement, some people will download an app and only ever report one or two issues to city government, for instance. Some people become power users. And in the end, all those things together add up to something that's really different from what went before and truly adding value to the functioning of the city.

RAZ: I mean, the question you ask is, how do we architect the systems in the right way? How do you do that?

PAHLKA: I don't think anybody knows yet. I think that a big agenda for this decade is going to be experimenting with that and finding more ways that we can do it and do it at scale. Because, you know, if you look at the history of the Internet over the past, you know, 15 years, it would have been very hard to predict what was going to work.

But because there were so many experiments happening, some of them hit big and that's how you get something like Wikipedia that is, you know, been transformational. But I think, you know, before Wikipedia existed, if you'd gone and told people, you know, we're going to do this thing and everyone's going to contribute, a lot of people would've said yuh-huh (ph) - good luck. But it works and it works because of a certain kind of chemistry and, I think, these undervalued resources that aren't apparent in our current institutional models, that start to show themselves and if you can keep playing with that and keep finding ways that people really will work together, you have something very powerful.

RAZ: Here's more from Jennifer's TED Talk.


PAHLKA: So an app that takes, you know, a couple of days to write and then spreads virally, that's sort of a shot across the bow to the institution of government. It suggests how government could work better. Not more like a private company, as many people think it should, and not even more like a tech company, but more like the Internet itself. And that means permission-less it means open, it means generative. It's not just Code for America fellows, there are hundreds of people over the country that are standing and writing civic apps everyday in their own communities. They haven't given up on government. They are frustrated as hell with it, but they're not complaining about it, they're fixing it.

And these folks know something that we've lost sight of. They don't care as much about using their voices. They're using their hands. They're using their hands to write applications that make government work better and those applications let us use our hands to make our communities better. That could be shoveling out a hydrant, pulling a weed, and certainly we could have been shoveling out those fire hydrants all along, and many people do.

But these apps are like little digital reminders that we're not just consumers and we're not just consumers of government, putting in our taxes and getting back services. We're more than that. We're citizens. So, the question I have for all of you here, when it comes to the big, important things that we need to do together, all of us together, are we just going to be a crowd of voices or are we also going to be a crowd of hands? Thank you.


RAZ: Jennifer Pahlka. She's taking a temporary break from Code for America. She's now a top tech advisor to the White House.


ANDRE 3000: 1-2-3-4, can I have just a little more, 5-6-7-8-9-10. I love you. A-B-C-D, can I bring my friends to tea...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit You can also find many more TED Talks at and you can download and subscribe to this program through iTunes or the NPR smartphone app.


ANDRE 3000: All together now. All together now. All together now. All together. All together now. Black, white, green and gray...

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