Civic geeks meet policy wonks: Code For Ireland

US movement to mine public data for new online tools to benefit citizens starting in Ireland

Across America there has been a coming-together of citizens, tech geeks and public officials in an effort to mine public data for new online tools and services in the public interest. Under the moniker ‘Code For America’ – and carried out in a largely voluntary capacity – there has been an assortment of services that make small but important contributions to citizens’ well-being.

Now the same experiment in civic-minded tech volunteering is starting in Ireland. It launches tonight, in Dublin Castle.

For a flavour of what might be in store consider the following examples of Code For America projects: a text message service that helps low-income households to keep track of food stamps; a service that allows businesses to streamline permit applications; and an app that allows a parent to track the location of their child’s school bus. A personal favourite is the “Adopt-a-hydrant” app, which seeks out citizens to take responsibility for keeping fire hydrants free of snow.

Catherine Bracy of Code For America believes the model of developers, public servants and people from local communities working together to tackle challenges will also work outside America. "We've seen it work in places as diverse as Detroit and Macon, Georgia, " she says. "To do that requires commitment from government and willingness to participate from citizens."

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Bracy says Code For America has been impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers behind the new Code For Ireland. “They’re working very closely with government officials who really care about making local governments more innovative and engaging.”

One of those citizen volunteers is Ciaran Gilsenan, the chief executive of tech start-up BuildingEye.com, which allows users to monitor planning proposals in their area.

While seeking data for BuildingEye's service in the United States, Gilsenan made contact with Jonathan Reichental, the chief information officer of Palo Alto, a town at the heart of Silicon Valley. Gilsenan discovered to his surprise that Reichental was originally from Ranelagh, and the two came up with the idea of Code For Ireland.

'Powerful ideas'

They asked Dominic Byrne of Fingal County Council to help them. Byrne has been a prominent proponent of open government data in recent years.

Byrne says working with volunteer geeks on ad hoc projects is not typical task for the public sector.

Catherine Bracy of Code For America saw the value of bringing political and policy teams together with engineers on a day-to-day basis during her time with the Obama campaign. “Working together on tools made our tech solutions so much stronger,” she says.

“The most powerful ideas for projects and solutions come when you put people who have tech talent and people who have issue-area expertise in the same room together.”

Code For Ireland ran an initial meet-up in late November. “We were really surprised by the initial meet-up. We had attendees from the IT sector, community and local government. Everyone was so engaged it was amazing.” The attendees produced a number of concepts for future projects.

One will – if built – allow people to avoid queuing in person at the motor tax office by the simple expedient of sending them a message when they are due to appear.

Another concept is for an app to assess new business locations based on zoning, available property, and current and planned businesses in the area.


Open data
As with much else that Code For Ireland might do, these ideas rely heavily on the availability of public data.

Fingal County Council has been an early mover in giving citizens access to its data. Gilsenan’s start-up emerged from a contest called Apps4Fingal that Dominic Byrne ran in 2012 to attract entrepreneurs to build new services on top of Fingal’s data.

In the past two years a number of local authorities and government agencies have started to publish data in open formats, and there are positive signs the Government may do so as a matter of course in the future.

This means it is likely there will be significantly more public data from which Code For Ireland volunteers can build services for their fellow citizens in the years ahead.

The use of data in the public interest is a partial antidote to the slowly gathering unease about commercial web giants’ accumulation and commercialisation of user data.

Code For America’s tone is lofty.

Catherine Bracy talks of technology’s ability to “make our communities more just, more prosperous, and more democratic.”

This might sound like the all-encompassing optimism typical among utopian data science boosters, which Evgeny Morozov scornfully described as “to save everything, click here”. However, Code For America projects tend to be practical and discretely framed. They tackle lofty ambition in deliverable bite size pieces.

For the first six months Code For Ireland will focus on building a community of volunteers to meet once a month and work on projects together. The next step, says Gilsenan, is to make Code For Ireland a nationwide phenomenon. Currently Fingal and Dublin City Councils are the main supporters of Code For Ireland within government, but other local authorities are interested in becoming involved.

Bracy, who has seen Code For America spread in different locations around the United States, says the real challenge is not the initial phase “of getting people on board or getting government officials to recognise the value in theory”. Rather, she says, “the challenge is deepening their commitment and making sure they stick with it when things are hard”.

Jonathan Reichental, the chief information officer of the city of Palo Alto and Catherine Bracy of Code For America will speak at the launch of Code For Ireland tonight at 6pm. Readers can rsvp at www.codeforireland.com.