Sometimes, Hackers Are Heroes

To many people, navigating the bureaucracy of local government sounds as pleasurable as getting a root canal. Nonetheless, if you’re invested in making your city a better place to live—by preventing crime, planting trees, opening a small business—you’re going to have to enter into the dark world of municipal governments. Directives will be confusing, permits will be plentiful and time will move as slowly as molasses—unless you have “Code for America” on your side. Then you’re golden.

Code for America is a new-generation nonprofit that refers to itself as a “Peace Corps for Geeks.” Also known as CfA, it's a collective of hackers, city planners and tech leaders who write code and apps for local governments that allows citizens the ability to easily effect changes in their neighborhood without having to endure a bureaucratic battle.

MORE: Is 'Hacktivism' Really Activism?

CfA’s “BlightStatus” app is currently helping people in New Orleans, a city still scarred by Katrina. One major issue in and around the area are the blighted homes, abandoned and decaying structures that are dangerously unstable and serve as magnets for rodent infestation and drug crimes. BlightStatus allows citizens up-to-date information on each structure’s status, effectively cutting down on what may amount to weeks of wading through interminable phone calls and city records to find out what the local government is doing about it and contact whoever is responsible for fixing it.

Other CfA initiatives are making a difference across the country.

In Boston, CfA’s "Adopt a Hydrant" app allows residents to take responsibility for fire hydrants by keeping them free of blanketing snow. For the city, keeping track of each fire hydrant is a costly and time-consuming process, but when parceled out to local residents, the system becomes much more efficient. That same code was turned into Honolulu’s "Adopt a Siren" program, where the city's crucial tsunami sirens are often robbed of their batteries. Later, the "Adopt" code was used in Chicago, where the local government reportedly bought a bunch of beer and used it to launch its "Adopt a Sidewalk" initiative so citizens could pitch in to shovel snow (presumably warmed by the frothy goodness of some finely brewed malt barley). In Santa Cruz, CfA is working on a code to make it easier for local entrepreneurs to open small businesses. It’s creating a single website where all the necessary permits, laws, due dates, and inspections can be accessed in one streamlined process, instead of enduring months of multiple visits to city departments. The collective's "SnapFresh" app allows those receiving food stamps access to quality food, from any cell phone, by simply texting their location. The app texts back the address and directions to five of the nearest quality food stores that accept SNAP, enabling healthier decisions without the need for Internet access. Other apps address disaster relief, easier access to government contracting jobs, petitions to erect stoplights, beatifying neighborhoods with greenery and bike lanes, and scores of others.

And they’re not the only ones. East Bay Express reports that a lone hacker, Michal Migurski, reworked Oakland’s crime-mapping site, taking it from its clunky and impossible-to-navigate initial incarnation, into a streamlined and downright elegant version that provides up-to-the-minute information on the latest crime activity in the city. Neighborhood crime prevention councils, which previously had to hunt down data from the Oakland Police Department, now can identify patterns and erect prevention strategies with just a few clicks.

Many of these efforts would have been unheard of just two years ago. The technology would have been there, but it was the Obama Administration’s 2009 Open Government Directive that was the game-changer. It mandated greater government transparency by allowing open access to government data. That’s when cities softened to the idea of not only showing civilians the inner workings of their departments, but letting them reorganize and reimagine that data into usable searchable sites for the general public.

In her interview with the East Bay Express, Jen Pahlka, founder of CfA, says, "It's a new definition of transparency. Transparency shouldn't just be about holding your government accountable; it's about changing the relationship between people and government."

What kind of app would be helpful for you to effect change in your own city? Let us know in the Comments.

A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer.  In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for Email Andri | @andritweets |