Beyond software: Programmers hope to change Macon

mstucka@macon.comSeptember 23, 2012 

Three Code for America fellows have spent most of a year writing computer programs for organizations in Bibb County. They’ll be gone in a few months but may leave an unusual legacy of interest in open government, open data and community activism.

“We hope that the impact of the program has been not just the creation of apps, but also a deeper understanding of what technology can do in the service of citizens and an erosion of some of the barriers to the use of technology in local government,” said Jennifer Pahkla, founder of Code for America, in an e-mail to The Telegraph.

But a Code for America-hosted forum last week showed the conversation has moved beyond regular government services. People wanted to see a map of crimes to know whether downtown Macon was safe, dangerous or something in-between. Others wondered about nongovernmental data, such as whether a compilation of check-ins from social media company Foursquare could prove the extent and depth of nightlife in downtown Macon, which could help attract more residents and business developers.

Nick Doiron, one of the Code for America programmers, said that some efforts to provide government information to the people, such as online mapping of code enforcement violations, is a major change in how government works, like the difference between going to Blockbuster to pick up a video and being able to stream a movie from Netflix.

“There’s a whole radical change here in what people expect from government and the information that is accessible to them,” Doiron said.

But bringing better technology to Macon and Bibb County can lead to unusual obstacles. Doiron told an audience he had to test solutions to make sure they could work on the city’s computers, which use the vintage Windows XP operating system and Internet Explorer 7. Someone in the audience groaned.

The code enforcement database software hasn’t been updated since 1997, and the vendor’s web page still advertises that the software is capable of working past the year 2000, Doiron said.

“We actually want the government of Macon and of Bibb County to continue with radical openness,” Doiron said.

Grant Faulkner, assistant director of information technology for Bibb County’s government, said Code for America has similar ideas to what his organization wants to do.

“They are paralleling some of the stuff we’re doing or had plans to do,” said Faulkner, whose co-workers have developed better property maps for the county and an interactive parks and recreation search tool. But even though two employees last week were at a conference about mobile apps -- software for cell phones -- Faulkner acknowledged his staff has limits between regular duties and additional work to merge Bibb County with Macon. “It doesn’t leave much time for any extras,” Faulkner said.

Chris Floore, a spokesman for Macon’s government, said Code for America has helped orient the government to find better ways of doing things. Government consolidation gives an opportunity to do things in a different, better way, Floore said.

“We have brought Code for America here. We want them to identify needs, provide resources and tools, and provide a legacy of better government and communication,” Floore said.

Floore noted that Code for America had been working with other organizations across the area, even though it had been partnered with Macon’s government.

Before Code for America, Macon Transit’s maps didn’t show stop times and didn’t even show all of the bus stops. A new online map for the agency shows expected arrival times and every bus route, including a bus to Robins Air Force Base.

For Habitat for Humanity, Code for America got an electronic map of every building’s foundation through Bibb County’s government, then developed a way for Habitat to show houses that had been torn down, rebuilt or replaced.

Other projects include something called homeSTATUS, a work not yet released that can track houses with overgrown yards or other maintenance problems. New Orleans’ Code for America programmers are also working on the project, Doiron said. Another project made it easier for the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency to map out damage from storms or other disasters. The agency had been using colored pencils on paper.

Such software projects can make things work more efficiently, but they also require intervention by costly computer programmers. And Code for America’s fellowships, covered by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, cost $300,000 for a year of help.

Beverly Blake, the Knight Foundation’s program director in Macon, said the software makes government run more efficiently and helps citizens stay more involved.

“These applications actually lower the costs of providing government and lower the costs of services,” Blake said.

Blake also arranged for the Knight Foundation to cover the costs of SeeClickFix, a mobile app and website that allows problems such as potholes to be reported. Macon and Bibb County’s cost is $5,000 each per year, and citizens’ use has taken off. Macon and Bibb County were the sixth and seventh biggest users of the service, far ahead of Houston, Texas.

And the governments have been responding to the citizens. On Thursday, for example, someone reported potholes on Napier Avenue, Forest Hill Road and Floyd Avenue. Those were all patched later that day.

But Blake hopes that such isolated bits of software don’t stay isolated.

“Knight’s hope is that what they have introduced us to as a city and a county government will be the push for us to take technology and integrate it into our government, especially our new government, and keep citizens close to government,” Blake said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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