Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Apps for engagement and innovation

Oct. 29, 2012, 10:12 a.m., Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

Since its launch, the Code for America Commons has grown from a small collaborative experiment in civic innovation to a thriving database with almost 620 apps being used in 242 cities.

Supported by Knight, its goal is to become the first stop for city officials, community leaders and civic hackers who want to find out what civic technologies are working and where. Its database goes beyond just cataloging the available apps to encourage the sharing of information and best practices.

One of the apps gaining traction is Textizen, designed and used as a way to improve resident feedback around specific projects like city planning initiatives. The app helps cities easily ask questions via public posters and quickly collect feedback via text. Philadelphia and several other cities are already using it.

We recently talked with Code for America’s Community Coordinator Lauren Dyson to learn more about the growth of the Commons and how its focusing on the adoption of these civic tech tools.

The CfA Commons has a growing community of contributors. Where are you seeing the majority of them come from?

L.D.: It is a pretty diverse group! There’s been a lot of Code for America Brigade members contributing, as well as representatives from local governments. We love seeing cities participating — Bloomington, Ind. in particular has been a dedicated contributor since the beginning. And there’s a growing community of civic startups who are leveraging the Commons to increase awareness of their apps and share where they’re being used.

You're tracking which apps are being used the most. What are they and why do you think they're popular?

L.D.: Major players in the open source space like Drupal and WordPress have been increasingly adopted in the government sector. These apps are extremely robust, well-supported, and customizable — they can essentially replace traditional proprietary enterprise software leading to significant cost savings. For example, when The Department of Energy moved Energy.gov onto Drupal, it resulted in a cost savings of up to $10 million annually.

Another category seeing increased adoption is citizen engagement apps, like SeeClickFix, MindMixer, Textizen and a variety of social media tools. Citizens are accustomed to conducting their personal and professional lives online and governments are increasingly turning to these technologies to more effectively reach citizens and better engage a broader audience in civic issues.

Can you share examples of how the apps are leading to more informed decision-making in government or engaging communities?  

L.D.: Textizen is a great example - it’s an app that came out of this year's fellowship. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission used it to gather more than 700 citizen responses to survey questions that will inform its long-term planning initiative. The result is more representative feedback from a larger cross-section of the community, better data-driven decision making ability and more empowered residents.

What's your plan over the next year? Are you looking to grow by adding more apps?

L.D.: We’re always keeping an eye out for what’s new in civic tech, but our main focus for the next year isn’t so much adding new apps as making the existing information more usable and useful. Over the next year, we’ll introduce ongoing editorial, recommendation and “how-to” content through our new Peer Network program, much of which will be available to Commons users to help them better understand and evaluate all the apps.

What are the biggest barriers in getting more people to adopt these tools?

L.D.: Adopting new civic technology requires an awareness of the tech that is available and how it can work in other cities. That is precisely what we're trying to address with the Commons. But it’s just the first step: It also requires an understanding of the next steps that are needed to re-deploy an app, and the time and resources to actually do it. A lack of support for the apps, and lack of time and resources in city IT departments are often other barriers to adoption. That is why adding more curated recommendation and documentation content will be a key strategy for the Commons moving forward.

Given those challenges, how are you focused on the adoption of these civic tech tools?

L.D.: Our Brigade program (a network of civic hackers volunteering their skills and time locally) has been a great resource for driving adoption of new civic technology in communities across the country. We are currently running an initiative called the Race for Reuse to encourage sustained adoption of civic engagement apps. It looks beyond the standard civic app contest, where the end result is prototyping a new app. Instead, we want folks to take advantage of the applications for engagement already out there, stand them up fast, and then "race" to get real users engaging with the tools.

If you have questions, comments, or feedback about the Code for America Commons, email them to commons@codeforamerica.org. You can also find them on Twitter at @cfacommons. The Code for America Commons is also supported by MacArthur Foundation, Omidyar Network and O’Reilly Media.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation