Lisa: Welcome everyone, it’s my pleasure to introduce today’s keynote speaker, Abhi Nemani, is an interim executive director for Code of America. He has a real passion for working with local government. I’m serious about that. I was like “Local government, okay,” and the minute I started talking to Abi I just was so excited to hear what he has to tell us today. Here at Code of America he’s also focused on helping them grow in scale and I think that’s something that we all here can relate to as well in our companies. Let’s invite Abhi up to stage, let him tell us just how Agile and Lean can help shake things up in the world of local government. Thank you. Welcome, Abhi.
Abhi Nemani: Thank you. Good morning. Thank you Lisa and thank you Agile, this is a terrific conference. I’m stunned by the number of people that are here. Particularly when the weather’s so nice outside, you guys are in here talking about [inaudible 00:01:03] development, that’s great. So, why am I here? I’m not here to talk to you about agile technology. I’m not an expert in that. You all are that. I’m here actually to learn from you about that. What else I am here for is to talk to you a little bit about government. In particular, I heard Ken describe the theme for this conference. Practitioners making Agile work. What I would ask you to do today is with me, to explore how we might be able to make Agile work for government. That’s what I’m gonna try to ask you to do today. I realize I’ve been talking to some folks out here and folks probably have some conception that they would never want to work with government. If you’ll allow me to try to convince you, that’s what I’m gonna try to do today. Okay. Well, what else am I not gonna do? I’m not gonna show you bad pictures of government software.
Well, okay, I’m gonna do that a little bit. So here’s one. Here’s another. There’s no form there, I mean, there’s nothing in that menu. Here’s another. Just a dropdown that goes nowhere at all. I could spend a lot of time doing that and frankly would have fun. It’d be a good way to spend some time, but that’s not what I want to do today. I also could show you this one, or I could show you all of those. I could also tell you about the size of the government technology market. How many folks here have actually worked with government in the past? You guys probably know this. Government IT is a huge industry, huge. Let me put it in perspective for you, so iPhone apps, right? iOS applications. I bet a lot of you build those and sell them on the Apple Marketplace. The iOS software market is 2 billion dollars. Video games, right? I’m guessing your guys’ kids love, you spend lots of money on them. All of the video game market, 10 billion dollars. Government technology is a 172 billion dollar market. I’m gonna say it again. Government technology is 172 billion dollar market.
That’s just in the US alone. I could again focus on that number and talk to you about why you should get excited from an economic interest in working with government, but I don’t want to do that either. I want to show you this. This is the UK’s redesigned website. Gov.UK. You should pull it up on your phones, it’s mobile responsive and looks great. This was built by the government digital service, GDS is what we call it. This is a team of developers led by this amazing entrepreneur, Mike Bracken. He said “We want to build the best government website possible.” That’s what they set out to do. They have this great thing, if you ever go visit their office, so you know governments have hundreds of websites. Right? I bet, try to figure out the one unified portal for the federal government of the United States, you couldn’t do it, right? There’s too many. They said that doesn’t make sense. They said your government should be as straightforward as a search box. That’s what they did, so they took all of the different government websites in the UK, put them on a wall, and each week, using Lean, using Agile, they take down one of those websites and integrate it into the one platform.
That’s why you can get simple things, like, you want to know where you can get benefits? There’s a simple advisory form. Simple stuff, it’s simple, now that’s a big theme here. The government technology doesn’t have to be complex. It can be simple, but how did they get there? That’s what I want to explore a little bit with you all today because I think with this crowd, this is going to resonate. They have principles. They’ve identified a series of 10 principles that define the way they build technology for the UK government. Stuff as simple as “Start with needs. Do less. Design with data. Iterate. Make things open, it makes them better.” Common sense principles that they feel the government should value. Here’s the reason why I think I can make this pitch today. Here’s the reason why I think you all are gonna think about working with government when we’re done. You guys have these same principles. I did my homework, I went on the Agile Alliance websites and I looked at the Agile manifesto.
It turns out they’re pretty much the same things, right? The only difference is they’ve committed to now applying those to government. That’s what I want to ask you guys to do, because I think your values, starting with users, testing, iterating. I think those values are the exact ones we need to bring into government and it’s our responsibility as technologists to do so. I’m gonna be [inaudible 00:05:21] a couple of key themes today. Users matter. Again, right out of your playbook. Principles matter. This is what brings all of us together here, and the process matters. That’s what Agile is and that’s what we’re trying to bring into government, right? This notion of building for users in Lean and Agile ways. Let me just give you a quick sense of what we do at Code for America.
Our non-profit, you could call us a Peace Corps for geeks. It’s a year long fellowship program and the idea is that we want to make it easy and attractive for technologists to give back to public service. The way the model works is that we work with cities. I’ll just mention, Lisa said that I’m passionate about local government, and I am. I really am, and I’m really passionate about cities, because I think that cities are where there’s a nexus of interaction between you and your government. Cities fill potholes. Cities take out the trash, and these are day-to-day practical problems that we think technology could have a big role in changing. The way the model works is that fellows apply. You might think, based on a name like Teach for America, these aren’t people who are just coming out of college. These are folks with five to six years of experience in the industry, I think the average age this year is 30 or 31. It’s competitive, 650 applied for 20 spots. Think about that, 650 technologists applied to leave their jobs and go work for government for a year. They’re taking a pay cut, it’s a living wage stipend. This shows the passion and commitment that they have.
Then what do they do? Just so you know, it’s guys like this. That’s Max [inaudible 00:06:54]. Funny thing is, you never think about this, right? Well, you know, they’re technologists, they’re used to dressing like that. Well, they had to go work in cities, so we partner directly with city government. We have to do things like train them how to tie ties. There’s a rumor that the fellows, when they showed up in Boston on the first year, there were seven of them, they only had two ties between them and had to share them. I don’t know if that’s true or not. We put them through this process, right? They go through this process where they all go into a city government and ask questions. Crazily enough, they’ll actually do research before deciding what to build. The cities come to us with a general problem statement. We’ll talk about a couple of them. For example, how can you make the education process for picking which school to go to easier, or this year in San Mateo County they’re working on food stamp enrollment and how you can get people taking advantage of those social services.
These are interesting, complex problems, but crucially, the government doesn’t come to us with a specific solution in mind. We do the research first and through that research, there’s amazing, emerging outcomes and I’m going to tell you a little bit about those today. Practically what happens is the fellows would go, they’ll talk to anybody who’ll give them time for a month in February, they understand users’ needs, identify some core problems, and then they start building. We challenge every single fellowship team to come back after 6 weeks with a prototype, and for government that’s sometimes just shocking. It’s an entirely different model. That’s why it matters. The process matters. We’re showing what’s possible through Lean and Agile processes. What’s great about that is that we thought the first year, we’re now in the third year of the fellowship. The first year was 2011. We thought each team would have one application, that you’d go in, find a problem, and build one thing. They built dozens. The first year, 3 fellowship teams built 20 projects.
Last year there was 56 different projects and as you all know, once you start exploring, once you start doing research diving in, the possibilities end up being boundless, and that’s why they’re able to build so many different things. That’s kind of the overview of the process. What I wanted to do is share some of the learnings that we’ve had from the last couple of years, and some of the opportunities we’ve identified as well. This is a project we took on last year in Honolulu. This is the Honolulu city website. My personal favorite thing about this is, see the picture of the beach there? That’s an animated GIF that doesn’t actually do anything, it just circles around and around and around. They identified that this was a huge problem for the city. Citizens were frustrated with the website, couldn’t find out the information they needed and the city realized it too. This was a team of three developers and a short cycle. You know, it’s kind of an ambitious project, to take on the entire website redesign. The GDS team in the UK has dozens of developers full-time for many years. They’re able to do something that ambitious, we wanted a level set on expectations as whoever here who’s a consultant in the room can probably understand that you usually want to do.
We thought “We can’t redesign the whole thing, but what if we just asked this simple question? What are citizens looking for when they go to a government website?” Well, they’re probably looking to answer a question, and so we built this. This is Honolulu Answers. It’s modeled off the Gov.UK site, we actually used some of the code. All of our code, by the way, is open source. You should submit a pull request or something if there’s anything you would like to change on them. This is Honolulu Answers, and the core notion here is that governments often design their website horizontally. I mean vertically. Each department has its webpage, the next department has its webpage. Well, citizens don’t think like that. You don’t think like that. You’re not caring which department in the government has the answer to your question. You just want an answer to your question, so we built a simple application that just did that. You can put in something like “How do I renew my driver’s license?” You’ll get pretty clean, easy answers to that question.
That alone was interesting. It’s making a simple interface to government that citizens like, but there’s a problem. Good content is hard to write. Good content takes time. Just as important as the technology is the copy. The fellows realized that the three of them writing every single page for this thing wouldn’t scale. So what do they do? They turn to the community. They held these things called, you’ve probably heard of a Hack-A-Thon? They held a Write-A-Thon. Where they invited citizens to come together on a Saturday, and they did that. Citizens came together, they looked at the data from the website to see what were the most popular pages, and it turns out it was things like “How do I renew my driver’s license?” “What time is the Post Office open till?” Looked at that data, and then using that data, worked together to rewrite that content. So citizens were working hand in hand with the city government to actually build the city website. We look at that as an example of how governments can turn to the community as capacity.
We increasingly try to see how can we engage citizens in the process. How can citizens be involved in the work of government? Technology can enable that. The funny thing about this app … This is another picture from the event. That’s apparently another popular question that they had in Honolulu, I don’t know. Crazy thing is, that app kind of went viral. So, because all the code we write is open, because we code in public, other people can benefit from that technology. I’ll just take a minute to emphasize this, here’s what’s really important about civic technology, particularly at the city level. Right now, cities are each working independently. Nashville is building its own tech stack, building all of its own applications. San Francisco is doing the same thing, again, all on its own. Chicago is doing it too. You have each of these effectively similar institutions reinventing the wheel over and over and over again. Guess who’s paying the bill? We all are.
It’s our tax dollars that go to fund that model, and so we want to change that model, we want to disrupt it because we think that governments can actually work together, and using open technology they can actually have network systems. We’re seeing it bear out. This is a simple example, but this is showing what’s possible with government starting to reuse code. Oakland took this application and redeployed themselves, and it turns out they also wanted to host a Write-A-Thon, and they did that. They were able to stand up the application, write a couple of hundred different pieces of content, and here’s the cool thing. They kept having those events. Every couple of weeks now, people come together, sit down, and say “How can we make this website better?” That’s a changing in perspective, I think. You go from a model where citizens are like “Oh, the government website is just terrible. I can’t do anything about it,” and you get frustrated. To a model instead where people feel energized. Where people feel active. Where people are coming together. All that happened was this simple little website got stood up, and we just motivated them to come together, and now they keep coming together.
We think that’s an interesting model to explore for what else you could do that with government. Tim O’Reilly, one of the board members at Code for America, who you guys have probably read one of his books, he used this phrase – “Government as a platform.” To explain that metaphor, you can think of a model of government as a vending machine. That’s the way we traditionally think about it. You put your tax dollars in, you get some services out. The best you can do if you’re frustrated with it is go shake the machine. Well, what if you constructed a different model of government? That of government as a platform. An open platform that enabled citizens to do more. That enabled citizens to be involved in the process, and that made a system where we all could actually work together to make it better. We think that technology can enable that and that’s what we’re seeing bear out. That’s government as a platform. If I were to stop now you’d be like “All you guys do is go rebuild government websites, right?”
That’s not exciting. You can go get WordPress for that. I think what’s interesting, the examples I’m going to tell you now are the next evolution in civic technology. The next step. That’s using software to reinvent service. That’s using software to rethink the way government actually works. This is a project that we did in Philadelphia from last year. This is the way you typically get feedback if you’re a city. You go to those town hall meetings, usually in the evening, maybe a dozen or so people show up. It’s not very reflective of the community. Have any of you guys ever gone to a town hall meeting? Yeah, I see like 10 hands. If that’s the case and you all are passionate, successful people and you’ve never gone to a town hall meeting, how do you imagine people who don’t have the resources to carve out that kind of time. Do you think they’re going? Do you think they’re showing up? Do you think their opinion is being included in the process? Often, no. We wanted to reimagine the way that engagement works. We did something this simple, we built a simple SMS app. It’s called Textizin. We did this novel thing called marketing.
We put the application, we put the posters throughout the city and asked people to give feedback on the city plan right where they are. Would you use the Rapid Transit line to get to City Center? The question is for the citizen right there. That’s a much easier way to get feedback because it’s local. You’re close to it. On top of that, because it’s SMS based, and because it’s distributed, you finally can have a town hall meeting that’s finally reflective of the town. You can get a broader set of opinions in the process, and this isn’t complicated technology. This is actually just a simple SMS tool. What was great through that process, this is Jeff Friedman who’s our city partner, so I’ll just mention, for us, the reason our whole model works is because there are people inside City Hall who get it. You may think that cities are these opaque, abstract entities. Well, it turns out they’re just people. Governments are just people, and there’s a lot of good people inside government, and they want to do things differently. This is what Jeff Friedman, who’s our city partner in Philadelphia said, he said “Mysterious strangers who came and taught the city staff that they had the magic in them all along.”
Technology unlocked these people and gave them a new way of doing things and once you see that, you probably get this. Once you see the power of technology, you want more of it, right? It’s contagious like that. The city of Philadelphia, after they worked with us, actually make structural changes to that institution to make it more innovative. They changed laws. They appointed a chief data officer. They created a department of new, urban mechanics, which by the way, is like the coolest job title ever. The new urban mechanic. They’ve now institutionally committed to this kind of work and so that’s really become our strategy. We think that by going through this process of building technology with a city government, you can show what’s possible, and once you’ve done that, you can institutionalize that kind of innovation, because our fellows are gone after 11 months. You’ve got to ask what gets left behind.
We think you can commit to structural forms and we’re seeing that happen. Last year actually, through our work 16 cities passed laws or appointed new job titles to be more committed to innovation. We’re just getting started. That was our second year and I think as we see more people enter into this work, more people get excited about this work, we’ll see more of this happen. It’s actually pretty interesting to think that, right? If you’re a coach for [inaudible 00:18:28] you think you’re just building application. If you’re doing civic technology, you think you’re just building application but you’re really rewiring the system. If you can pass a law based on the application you built, that’s a lot of influence, and we’re seeing some of that bear out. Here’s a project from Boston two years ago. Our focus on Boston wasn’t this. It was actually something else, but because the fellows were there at a time of apparent crisis, they focused on this. This is what parents were saying in response to the school selection process. Like a lot of different cities, there’s a pretty robust process in place to identify which schools your children are eligible for, and the process, frankly, at that point, wasn’t good.
I don’t have a lot of faith in the process being logical. Ultimately, it’s possible that we will leave the city. The process the city had in place was so frustrating that it was driving people out of the city, and so the Boston Globe ran this series of exposes on it, and the city got really upset and frustrated, and they asked us “Hey, can you guys do something?” This was in May, so kind of late in the process anyway. At that point we’re usually working on one or two core apps, well, they said “Could you think about working on this?” So we did. This, by the way, is what the brochure looks like that gets sent to parents, to help them pick their schools. I can’t read that. You can understand it’s easy to be frustrated whenever that’s what’s being sent to you, and that’s what’s effecting the choice for what schools your kids go to, so we built this. It’s like a Yelp for schools. Nothing complicated. It’s Discover BPS, you can put in your address, put in a couple of key criteria, and see easily on a map which schools your kids are eligible for.
What’s interesting about this project, though, is there are rules in place. It’s like, your kid could go anywhere within one mile. So if you’re doing a piece of legislation that’s written down in a book, you might say that, and think “Oh, one mile means one mile means one mile.” One mile when you’re crossing the Charles River is a lot different than when you’re walking on land. That’s the nuance that written rules often don’t have. You can just say a mile, but as you all can imagine, it depends a lot based on where that mile is, what you’re crossing over, what part of town you’re walking through. We were able to institute a walk score, which, if you’re familiar with that, basically takes in context, like distance, safety, and puts those into a more rigorous algorithm that then lets you know what schools are actually feasible for you to walk to. That’s like a change in perspective, right? It’s saying instead of having a strict rule that’s without context, you can have a nuanced one that’s data driven, that’s algorithmic.
That was a small thing we built into the tool, but it turns out that started a broader movement in the city to rethink the process over, overall. They’re actually committing right now to redesigning this application. Applications like this to us say … So this is Scott Silverman, he’s one of the fellows from 2011. On the first day of the fellowship we ask all the fellows to say “Why are you here? Why did you uproot yourself, move to San Francisco, and go commit to working for government?” He said “I’m here because I believe interfaces of government can be simple, beautiful, and easy to use.” Simple, beautiful, and easy to use. That’s what these fellows are showing is possible, and once you do that, you start changing the relationship between government and citizens. This is what the superintendent said. The superintendent, by the way, initially wasn’t interested in the project at all. She’s like “I don’t know why this matters.”
Afterwards, when our fellows went back, they asked her “What did you think?” She said “Discover BPS changed the way the school department relates to parents.” It changed the way the school department related to parents. That’s the power of civic tech, but here’s what’s cool, because people like this see that and get it, and then want to do more, they’re able to push forward even further reforms. This is what just happened this year in Boston, so the Mayor was saying “The school selection process is broken and we’ve got to fix it,” so they held a whole process. Discover BPS was part of it, but they had a broader process to actually rethink the way schools are assigned. They had a lot of different proposals, strict rules that were saying one mile or two miles, things like that. Then someone came in, this guy came in and said “Well, I mean, you guys are saying there’s a bunch of different criteria and there’s a bunch of different options. I can make an algorithm for that.” That’s what he did. He proposed a new algorithm to help identify which schools kids could be eligible for and the school department passed it.
That’s now their policy. Again, back to changing perspectives, that’s what happens when you understand what’s possible. This is what the New York Times said about that, “That it took a dispassionate outsider with coding skills but no political agenda to formulate the model is a measure of the complexities facing urban school districts today.” That’s a sad statement, really, right? It’s also a statement of opportunity. It says that things are broken, things are bad, but technology presents us an opportunity to move forward, and that’s what we’re seeing start to happen. Changing the conversation, the project from last year in New Orleans was a hard one. Anyone familiar with New Orleans knows that urban blight or vacant housing is a challenge there. You’d think it’s just because of Hurricane Katrina but in fact, cities like New Orleans, and all cities, really, are facing this problem of vacant housing. It’s particularly bad in NOLA, though, and so they asked our fellows to go in there and address that problem, and they built this.
They built BlightStatus. It’s a simple tool, you put in your address for a house and it tells you the process. Again, simple. All of these tools are very simple. Here’s what’s interesting about this tool, beforehand the mayor had asked his CIO to build this piece of technology. In New Orleans, because people didn’t know what the process was like, they didn’t know what was happening with the house they got, they got upset. They got frustrated, and in fact, citizens would spend hours during their own time going house to house to get a sense of what was happening. They’d have these huge maps, I have this picture of it. Huge maps where they’d be making their own crowdsourced map, because they didn’t know what the city was doing. This was their community and they were gonna understand what was happening. The mayor, also, was frustrated. The mayor wanted that same tool. Imagine being the mayor of a city with this as a huge problem for crime, for safety. You’d want to know. You don’t have a dashboard, but what’s the status of these houses?
He didn’t have one either. So both the mayor was frustrated, and the citizens was frustrated. The mayor asked the CIO “Can you build this tool for me? Can you build a piece of technology? The CIO said “It would cost me probably three years and a couple of million dollars.” Our fellows did it in six weeks, and that’s not to decry the CIO. It’s a different perspective. They took a Lean, Agile approach. They said “What’s the basic solution here? We just got to put points on a map. All right, done.” Then they made it a little bit better, and they put some clarity around the process, and they kind of kept making it a little bit better. Here’s what’s really interesting, though, about BlightStatus. The fellows have now taken that application and turned it into a civic startup. They are now taking it city to city to city because, as I mentioned, every city is looking for a tool like this. Here’s what Fast Company said about that tool. “The app proposes a new kind of more productive communication between the two groups that moves past angry and frustrated citizens on one end, and a paralyzed city on the other.”
It’s changing the conversation. That’s what civic technology can do, if done well, and putting users first. Use that as a reminder … I was making a joke earlier when you were sitting over there, I said “You know, I’m gonna get up here and ask everyone to go start working for government.” Someone over here said “Well, we all kind of do already, don’t we?” It’s easy to take that point of view back to that vending machine model, that you’re putting money in and expecting these services out. We have to remember that at its core, government is what we do together. It is an institution that we built, that we’re responsible for, and that we have the accountability to make better and it’s what we do together. As technologists, you have a central role in thinking about how we can create new, simple, beautiful and easy to use interfaces for that institution, for government.
I wanted to close on this example, it’s probably one of the simplest tools we’ve built, actually. It’s called Text My Bus. It’s a real-time transit app for Detroit. A lot of cities now have real-time transit, it’s not that interesting of a technology, but the fellow who built it said he spent a lot of time understanding users’ needs, and a lot of time thinking about the specific dynamics of the application, so please send the letter to the bus you like. Thinking about, you know, if you put in Russell and Division, what do you mean? Do you mean southbound or northbound? Thinking through that user experience and then testing it, and then making it better. They launched this thing, then, on the first day of school because in Detroit they wanted this cause there’s no school bus system. Students use the public buses for it. Great response. This app now has 10,000 plus users in the city so it’s been well received, but here’s what’s cool about it. You think when you put a transit app, people are just going to ask for their directions, and that’s that. Well, people started responding back, and this is what they started responding back with.
The reason I like to close with that, and I want to bring that up, is because there’s a lot of problems we have to address. There’s a lot of challenges, but there’s also a huge opportunity. When you build systems for government, you have the opportunity to inspire, to delight, to make people feel better about their connections to their cities, to their governments. That’s both a heavy responsibility, but it’s also, to me, a great opportunity and I would ask all of you to now rethink what I had asked earlier. Would you possibly want to go work for government? When you can make interfaces like that, I feel like there’s so much that we could do there, and as a group of people like you with the same principles around putting users first, testing, and making great technology, this is the responsibility we all have. Thank you.