When the March 1 deadline arrives tomorrow for cities to submit an application for the Code for America fellowship program, New York City will not be in the pack of cities that will be competing for programmer fellows to undertake a year-long tech project focusing on open government.
While this may seem odd to some, given the Bloomberg administration’s aggressive and vocal support for open government applications, the reasons that NYC will not be participating seem reasonable to some in the local tech community.
Code for America is a non-profit organization that connects five-person teams of volunteer programmer “fellows” with cities. Municipal governments apply to have fellows come to their city to address an open source programming challenge, and civic minded programmers apply to be fellows. The program’s goal is to develop reusable, innovative, web-based technologies aimed at making government more accountable, connected, efficient, and open.
Each city selected pays $250,000 to participate. In return, five fellows spend a month learning about city government needs, a month in the city interacting with city government officials and learning the community’s specific needs, and 10 months coding, back in San Francisco. Last year four cities –Boston, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and Seattle– were chosen from a group of 11 who applied.
According to NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) spokesman Nicholas T. Sbordone, NYC likes the ideas behind Code for America, but won’t be participating for a number of reasons. One big reason is money. Given the budget situation in NY, the city isn’t likely to be able to throw $250,000 at a program that is new, innovative, but unproven. There aren’t metrics available to measure Code for America’s success yet, Sbordone said, since the program is sending its first 2011 fellows to cities now, and those projects won’t be complete until next year.
Code for America Government Relations Director Alissa Black says that Code for America “continues to gather stats on the benefits our program brings to cities.” Philadelphia’s Division of Technology Chief of Staff Jeff Friedman was quoted as saying the kind of service Code for America is offering would cost that city closer to $1.48 million in consulting costs.
Another reason NYC won’t be applying is that the city already has its own IT fellowship program in the works, which will operate similarly to the city’s Urban Fellows Program. NY plans to introduce America’s finest college students and graduates to public service innovation through technology, and then hopes to keep those fellows here.
One of the downsides to Code for America for NYC is that the programmers come to a city for a month to understand the programming challenge, and the politics of the place, but then they leave to code in San Francisco. “We’d like to have the folks on site for longer than that, so we can multitask on other issues” Sbordone said.
Given the state of NYC’s open government infrastructure, the city is right to hold off on getting involved in the Code for America fellows project, former CTO of the John Kerry campaign and NY technology marketing guru Sanford Dickert said. Compared to many other cities, NYC is farther along in its Web 2.0 and Gov. 2.0 development and is already building a vibrant tech ecosystem here in the city.
Code for America offers cities an opportunity to kickstart their Gov.2.0 efforts through a kind of kind of “on shore outsourcing” of technical expertise, which is good for many cities who don’t have the expertise to develop their own, Dickert said. However, NYC already has digital initiatives underway at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and also has DoITT, which acts as the City’s Office of the CTO and has won many accolades for its implementation of 311, he said.
Also, “NYC is already opening its data set in conjunction with NYC BigApps, so the Code for America program may not be what NYC needs. What we need is to develop our tech ecosystem and encourage civic-minded programmers in our local area to build out relevant local services.”
Of course, there are always budgetary and political concerns. After the disastrous CityTime project, NYC can’t be seen as throwing money at a project that may not perform as advertised or may involve cost overruns.
Sbordone didn’t rule out DoITT collaborating with Code for America on other projects in the future, and Code for America’s Alissa Black said that the non-profit is aware that NYC won’t be participating this year and is looking for ways to partner with NYC in the future. “They are very supportive of our program,” she told NY Convergence.
Dickert said that NYC already has a close connection to the organization, since two of Code for America’s directors are NYC technology thought leaders: Clay Shirky, technology thinker who is most recently was appointed to a full time post at NYU and Andrew Rasiej, who is chairman of the NY Tech Meetup.