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Interview with Jennifer Pahlka

Aired October 7, 2012 - 14:00   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Jennifer Pahlka had this electrifying idea. She thinks geeks can fix government.


JENNIFER PAHLKA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, "CODE FOR AMERICA": People have seen that really geeks have changed the world so much in the past 10 or 20 years, but they haven't changed government yet.


GUPTA: Jennifer created "Code for America." It's a non-profit that takes the smartest programmers, web designers and technologists from places like Google and Apple and drops them into city halls all over the country. Their mission is to cut through bureaucracy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For us as a city, Jen has been the face of government.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody likes to call Jen Pahlka a visionary. I'm usually pretty skeptical of anyone being called that, but I got to say that she is one of those people.


GUPTA: They are writing apps that help parents track their kids' school bus in a snow storm and allows people to text feedback directly to their city planners.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cities are going bankrupt and the stuff they were building really can change the kind of bottom line of these cities.

PAHLKA: It's really remarkable when you think about what we don't like about government, we, the people created. So if we created it, we can also fix it.


GUPTA: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and this is THE NEXT LIST.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) PAHLKA: We proudly use the word geek. We call ourselves the Peace Corps for geeks. We're in the middle of our only second ever year of the "Code for America" fellowship. We've got 26 fellows working across eight cities. Not every "Code for America" fellows a programmer.

ALICIA ROUALT, "CODE FOR AMERICA" FELLOW: I'm actually an urban planner by trade. "Code for America" is this really interesting mix of people. We have a lawyer. We have designers. Coming together with programmers really make beautiful and effective products.

PAHLKA: They spend a lot of time with the cities, but actually they're based here in San Francisco at our offices. We're here on Ninth Street in the civic center area of San Francisco.

Each of the teams has a space here where they're moving their sticky notes or they brainstorm things around. Our Detroit team took this prime real estate in the office, which is great. They are working on the problem of light and properties.

There is a fantastic community group in Detroit that goes out and surveys the communities. Information that they gather from a neighborhood can sometimes take nine months to become actionable.

So they go to a technical assistance provider or data analyst and they say, here's all the information about my community. Can you turn it into a map? Can you turn it into a report?

So we wanted to take the expert out of the equation and really make it about the people who are collecting this data about the communities. So what we came up with is a tool kit called "Localdata."

It creates a web interstate that any non-technical person could easily create a survey using maps. We could say we're going to create an instance of these couple blocks. They made a way of going from nine months to a couple days.

We want to help government work better for everybody with the people on the power of the web. So I love their outcomes here, right? What is their criteria for this project? Happiness.

There are some great things that came out of last year. One of them was this one. You can go down to city hall and get a data set of public art that your city maintains. Suddenly you have a walking tour of public art in your city, really simple.

We have this idea of bureaucracy in local government, and it's generally things that we're frustrated at. It doesn't work the way we like it to work.

If you think about the past 10 years, what happened to our daily personal life? We're more convenient and more connected, but the government is falling behind. And that's a real problem.

JAY NATH, CHIEF INNOVATION OFFICER, SAN FRANCISCO: Bureaucracy is definitely one of the challenges. Instead of looking at ourselves like a startup in government, for us we think there's a new model for government.

PAHLKA: Mayor Emanuel in Chicago has promised the citizens a FedEx view of an open through and run requests. So for instance, if you report a pot hole, he wants to be able to see every step of the way to get that FedEx package. He believes that you should be transparent about that to citizens.

Good morning and welcome to stand-up.

ALEX YULE, "CODE FOR AMERICA" FELLOW: There is a very strong culture for America of building real things that work for the users that they're built for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last week, open impact, the campaign month so we're reaching out to government and city officials this week and next week.

YULE: We're building it for citizens, for the people who run government so that they can make cities work better for everyone. We have something that permeates the air here.

PAHLKA: Money after certain level does not really motivates people and we pay these guys a small stipend for the year. They are living on $35,000 a year, so they're certainly not here for the money. They're here to change this institution.

MICHELLE LEE, "CODE FOR AMERICA" FELLOW: We did public user testing with our bus app, which was awesome because we now have a functional app. I've seen this come up before that young people aren't really interested in the service.

But I think what I'm hearing from everyone here that we want to put the skills that we already do have in a professional context to be used in something that's meaningful to us.

PAHLKA: "Code of America" believes that we can make government work the way citizens want it to, and what we need to do to get that path in is to bring talented web developers together with innovators in city government and just re-imagine a new government that works for citizens. That was the partnership with O'Reilly media --




PAHLKA: This is my daughter, Clementine. She's nine. She likes to play in the backyard. Don't you, baby? Yes. She likes to take care of our chickens. We're in my backyard in Oakland, California. It's our home and the home of our chickens, and sometimes a garden. But it looks like we're in the country and we're really in a city and cities have become pretty important to me in my work.

We're right near public transportation. We're right near downtown. We're part of a major metropolitan area. But what I like about living here is that we also grow some of our own food, and the chickens help out with that, obviously.

And I think that in the future, cities are going to be more sustainable that way. Part of what we're trying to do with cities. I realized -- I think it was sort of in my mid-30s that I realized I'm always on the border between two things.

In high school, I was sort of friends with the geeks and friends with the socials and everything else and not solidly in one camp. I've always lived on the borders. OK, guys. Let's wrap it up. I've also always lived in the borders like right now we're three houses from the border between Oakland and Piedmont.

I lived right on the border of Manhattan and the Bronx growing up. I realize I've always been on the borders physically and socially. With "Code for America," we're so clearly on this border between -- it's not even a border because the geek world and the government world hardly touched at all.

It was really finding these absolutely different sort of universes and trying to bring them together and say, there is real value in this universe, understanding this one and vice versa. There is something good that can come out of that.

And you speak geek here and you speak gov here, but we can help that translation happen. And we can create something that never existed before. I never thought that I would be running something like "Code for America."

This whole arc has been something of a surprise for me. I graduated college thinking that I would do good in the world. I didn't really know what, but I figured you would go work at a non-profit and that's how you would make your mark, doing something good. I tried them and I really didn't like them.

I didn't feel creative and I didn't feel like I was fulfilling my potential. But I ended up having an offer from a friend to go travel around the world, and I did that, and that just changed my life. It was an amazing thing.

When I came back, I needed a job and I ended up sort of accidentally falling into the technology industry, and that was this, you know, sharp left turn for me. It wasn't at all what I thought I would do. I didn't know anything about technology.

I didn't think I liked it, but I loved it. And I love the people in it. And I found that the tech industry actually is full of incredibly creative, interesting people who put two and two together in an interesting way.

In particular there were game developers I was working with running this game developers conference. They're amazing. They are crazy, creative, very smart, but in a left brain and right brain kind of way, and it really felt to me like somewhere I could do something important, or at least something worthwhile.

I left that job after nine years when I had my daughter. I took a year off when Clementine was born and I came back to web2o. That was when I partnered with O'Reilly media. You feel like you're an animal farm all the time.

I have a friend that was the chief of staff for the mayor of Tucson for many, many years. He's married to my best friend from childhood. And he started writing me and saying, why don't you try to get people from your web tour world to write apps for cities?

Get me some web tour developers to come write apps for Tucson. I didn't know how to get them interested in working with government. Then one day his wife and I were having a beer, and we were talking about his experience doing teach for America. And a light bulb went off.

And I said, well, what if that's how we get your apps for Tucson written? What if we did a code for America? And it just seemed like the right idea. Everyone kind of went quiet for a minute.

That night I told my dad, I'm going to quit my job, but I'm going to start this non-profit. I think he thought I was crazy, but six months later I did it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They show you that it's quicker and easier than you think.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is just a fantastic project.




PAHLKA: Our Philadelphia team took this very modest section of the wall. This is only one of their projects. It really comes from a deep and interesting partnership with the city planners in Philadelphia.

YULE: One of the common themes is the idea of engagement, how to engage with citizens and how to hear what people want.

CLINT RANDALL, PHILADELPHIA CITY PLANNER: At the city planning commission where I work, what we're in the midst of right now is writing a new comprehensive plan for the city. In terms of priorities, it became clear very early on that one of the most important aspects of our work is engaging people in a meaningful way.

YULE: The Planning Commission had three specific questions, how people interacted with public spaces, so specifically how people use parks and city recreation areas in the city, and also getting data around how people perceive the kid friendliness of the city.

PAHLKA: The way you normally do this in city government is that you sketch some stuff out and you hold some meetings that happen generally in the evenings at city hall and you invite people to come and give feedback. RANDALL: But there are also some challenges with that, namely that it's very time and resource intensive.

YULE: The meetings are long, they're hard to schedule. They're hard for people to attend. They're inconvenient. They're expensive. They're really important for collecting deep data, but they didn't have an easy way to collect broad or more representative data about how people use the city.

PAHLKA: So what Michelle Lee and Alex Yule have done is design these fantastic-looking posters that ask specific questions about things the planners are considering.

YULE: Only 42 percent of Philadelphians have access to broadband internet at home while 92 percent of homes have access to devices with text messaging, so we knew that SMS would play a role in whatever we built.

RANDALL: Today, we are in Sisters City Park in the heart of Philadelphia. The idea of kid friendliness was making about all the places in center city Philadelphia where kids are.

So identifying those kinds of locations as a place to put up these posters that ask passers-by that simple question of what would you do to improve the kid friendliness of Philadelphia?

So the Milk and Honey Cafe here is a perfect example. We were able to put a small poster on every table in the cafe so that anyone stopping by with their kids and they see on the table. Look, the city is asking me a question. Maybe I'll answer it.

PAHLKA: This is an easy way to get feedback from the city of Philadelphia rather than trying to get people to sit through a whole meeting just to say the one thing that was relevant for them.

RANDALL: The response rate for Textizen has been I think far beyond our expectations. Between the three questions that we pose, we got about 750 responses. I would say on average for a public meeting, you're lucky if you get 50 to 100 participants.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted to call it text in the city.

JEFF FRIEDMAN, MANAGER, CIVIC INNOVATION AND PARTICIPATION: My name is Jeff Friedman. I'm the manager of Civic Innovation and Participation for the mayor Philadelphia, Michael A. Nutter.

Textizen is created for Philadelphia, but the goal was really for all the open sources of applications that they're available for anybody, so it has been deployed in several other cities, Salt Lake City, Utah, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Boston is using it.


GUPTA: Pahlka wants these apps to work for any city. The app is open source. It can be found on the "Code for America's" web site. This transparency has brought some surprising results. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHELLE LEE, CFA FELLOW, TEAM PHILADELPHIA: This is just a fantastic project, and it's taken off, if you think about it.

When we launched Textizen, we put a message on the website saying if anybody is interested in it. Fill out the form on the web site.

PAHLKA: How many filled out that form? Can you give me a latest number?

LEE: The latest number is 127.

PAHLKA: It can spread because it's open source. This is a "Code for America" project. This can spread to other places pretty quickly, which is really different than how cities normally procure software. It can take a very long time.

LEE: I think what "Code for America" has been able to bring is this big megaphone.

FRIEDMAN: They show you that it's quicker and easier than you think in terms of developing these tools. "Code for America" has taught me that in many ways the magic was sort of in me and in us and in the city all along. We can do this.

PAHLKA: If that application had gone through regular channels, it would have cost $2 million and taken two years.




PAHLKA: If you know anything that's going on in local government, you know that cities are incredibly cash strapped. We're cutting back on garbage being picked up. We're cutting back on parks being maintained.

We're cutting back on checking to make sure the playground equipment our kids play on is safe. And yet we're going to spend $2 million on something that our folks could do in two and a half months.

NIGEL JACOB, BOSTON MAYOR'S OFFICE OF NEW URBAN MECHANICS: Boston, like any other place, has been hit by the recession, but I think where "Code of America" really helps in dealing with that is because we're now able to develop lightweight tools that don't cost very much.

PAHLKA: One of the projects from last year I like to talk about is We had this team in Boston in 2011. There had been an article written in the "Boston Globe" about how frustrated parents were.

They couldn't get their kids assigned to the right public school. The way the public schools were disseminating this information was a 28- page brochure with tiny type describing each of the schools, but you couldn't really figure out which of the schools your kid was eligible for.

JOEL MAHONEY, FORMER CFA FELLOW, TECH STRATEGIST: It was confusing on paper, but once you put it on a map, it's not that confusing. It's pretty clear.

PAHLKA: One of the fellows happened to have some free time. His name is Joel Mahoney with the help of two other fellows in about two and a half months put up You just type in your address, the age of your kids.

And whether you have any other siblings assigned to another school, you click submit and there's a map showing you every school your kid is eligible to attend then you can click through and favorite them, take notes, read more about schools.

MAHONEY: Using some of these kinds of simple tricks of, you know, modern web design, we were able to actually make a government procedure a lot more intuitive and approachable for the citizens of Boston.

JACOB: Parents love these tools, so they've loved the opportunity to connect in these new ways.

PAHLKA: It's not rocket science. It's a basic modern web app. We were told that if that application had gone through regular channels, it would have cost $2 million and taken two years.

BILL OATES, CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICER, BOSTON: We would see the lights go on with some of the folks within our organization prompted by the conversation that they were having with the fellows.

JACOB: I think that the public is fairly clamoring for new ways to get involved in local government and to help fix problems, and I think these tools provided a series of new hooks to get involved in how their cities are working.

PAHLKA: Yes, it's funny. People want you to be one thing or another and we're not. We're a bunch of different things that conflict. We're both incredibly pro government and incredibly critical of government.

I don't see any contradiction in that. We need to embrace those contradictions. We need to say yes. We need government that works, and our government isn't working as well as it should right now. But if you can hold those two seemingly contradictory things together, then yes, you do feel kind of patriotic.

NATH: The impact is greater engagement. People have a sense that this is somebody else's problem, but it's our problem. We need to work on these solutions together, and it's not something that we can just hand off to government.

PAHLKA: If you don't tolerate any risk, you can never innovate. There is so much that citizens can do to communicate to their elected officials and to the bureaucrats that they interact with.

You know what? We want you to try stuff. And it's really remarkable if you think about it in that context that how much we don't like about government we, the people, created. If we created it, we can also fix it.


GUPTA: Jennifer Pahlka believes that innovation and fresh perspective can improve local government and change the lives of citizens for the better. And that's what earns her a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you back here next week.