Adopt a Hydrant: How a Social App Changed Snowstorm Response

March 2, 2014; 7:15 AM ET
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During January of 2011, Boston was blanketed in 38.3 inches of snow which is about three times the average snowfall amount for the month. As residents began the arduous task of shoveling their walkways, the fire hydrants adjacent to them remain untouched.

Buried under mountains of snow, they would be of little use to firefighters who wouldn't even be able to determine their location if needed. These are the types of problems that face the U.S. government every day.

Often, municipal governments become overwhelmed in the face of a natural disasters or severe weather. However, the perception of bureaucracy is an essential concept met with derision and cynicism instead of determination.

Code For America is a non-profit organization hopes to combat these problems by offering year-long fellowships to talented programmers and visionaries to provide services to overhaul the outdated and overburdened local governments.

In response to the fire hydrant issue in Boston, Code For America fellow Erik Michaels-Ober created the Adopt-A-Hydrant app. When downloaded or by accessing the site online, citizens can "adopt" a nearby fire hydrant and pledge responsibility for making it accessible to firefighters during snowstorms.

Is there a hydrant buried under the snow? Firefighters wouldn't know in case of an emergency. Credit: Flickr/Tastigon

By integrating game dynamics, such as being able to name your hydrant and the ability for users to "steal" ownership if it is not done in a timely manner, the app went viral. Pahlka says the program is "showing what's possible with technology today."

In stark contrast to traditional government work, the coding for the app was created in a single weekend.

Code For America hopes to showcase new tech talents by utilizing the talents and technologies of Gen Y to create a better government and, as a result, a better society. By applying the technological advancements that are embraced in the private sector, Code For America solves real-world problems with new technologies Millenials have adapted with ease. Code For America Founder Jennifer Pahlka even joked during her 2012 TED talk that the program was the equivalent of the "Peace Corp for geeks."

Pahlka also commented that government was supposed to be "everything [tech people] are supposed to hate." But the program utilizes the technologies that Gen Y has grown addicted to in programs to revolutionize civic efforts. Notable efforts for natural disasters initiatives are Adopt-A-Hydrant, originally created for the city of Boston, and Recovers, a platform that was used in Moore, Okla., after the tornadoes in the spring of 2013.

Pahlka believes that Generation Y has the power to truly be agents for a more effective society. She explained, "It's not just Code For America fellows, there are hundreds of people over the country that are standing and writing civic apps every day in their own communities. They haven't given up on government."

Code For America hopes to bring the power of the people to the 21st century by streamlining and advancing important government projects. By adapting new technologies, the future of these initiatives are limitless. Powered by new ideas and technologies, Code For America can help solve crucial everyday problems and streamline government services.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Erin Cassidy at cassidye@accuweather.com. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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