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 and can be solved by forward-thinking and innovation. The organization Code For America aims to solve these problems.
Snow accumulation in Boston. Credit: Flickr/Tastigon
Code For America is a non-profit organization that offers year-long fellowships to talented programmers and visionaries, mostly born into Generation Y, to provide services to overhaul the outdated and overburdened local governments.
These systems become even more exacerbated 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. Nicknamed not-so-affectionately as "Generation Me," the current young adults have been described as being more narcissistic and cynical than any other generation.
Varying reasons can be attributed to this shift in mindset, but the integral difference seems to be the amazing technologies that have emerged since the creation of the Internet. Generation Me, or more widely known as "Generation Y," were raised in a world where they were seemingly both emboldened and burdened by technology.
Code For America hopes to showcase the exceptions to the rule 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.
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. 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.
Not only did the app go viral in Boston, it also attracted the attention of other government officials and was re-purposed for other crucial problems with simple modifications. Forest Frizzell, the deputy IT director for the city and county of Honolulu, took note and approached Code For America to use the framework in Hawaii. Hawaii's fire hydrants are not in danger of being buried by snow, but their tsunami sirens are often disabled by thieves stealing the batteries. Without the batteries, the sirens would be rendered useless and citizens left vulnerable to incoming tsunamis without warning. Frizzell told NPR the resulting app, Adopt-A-Siren, was an enormous success with an adoption rate of 75 percent.
A tsunami siren in Maui, Hawaii. Photo by: Flickr user MïK Watson
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. With widespread adoption, Recovers could fundamentally change the way we respond to natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes. With Adopt-A-Hydrant, fires could be fought more effectively all around the country. Powered by "Generation Me," Code For America can help solve everyday problems and make natural disaster response much more efficient.
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