The second and third days of Code for America were as much inspirational as educational, and I find my notes (or lack thereof) reflect that. 


I appreciated the tenor and the range of the keynotes, but as is often at government conferences, I find many of the lessons learned at the Federal, State, and large city level hard to translate to the smaller municipalities I work with, where the only technology staff presence is that of an overworked IT person and maybe someone working on GIS.  No budget analysts, no Innovation Officers, and no UX or design teams in sight. 

Listening to Jennifer Palka reflect on her time made me reflect on Voterheads one more time and truly appreciate all she was able to accomplish.  While I’ve struggled to bring the value proposition of Code for America to my smaller world, the nation is a much better place for her efforts and accomplishments, and I admire that.

I also enjoyed Meredeith Harowski’s discussions regarding non-tech ideas for Brigades.  I have to admit that after the first National Day of Civic Hacking I toyed with the idea of starting a Brigade in Columbia, but I couldn’t make the time commitment.  Based on the Hackathons, I knew we also had a lot of non-tech talent interested in taking civic action, but I wasn’t sure how to best make use of them.  Meredith listed several ideas the utilitized at Code for Fresno to give non-tech volunteers meaningful work, including:

  • Working with City IT group to perform user testing of existing government apps and provide feedback.
  • Volunteer sessions to help facilitate testing of Brigade Apps
  • Data Collection for brigade and City apps.
  • Community outreach (surveying for user stories, case studies, etc.)

Work Sessions

Of the work sessions I attended, three stood out:

CfA Workshop
  • Democratize Data on a Budget
  • Procurement for a Smart City
  • A Service Blueprint for Successful User-Centered Digital Design

The ‘Democratize Data on A Budget’ session was more of an open discussion roundtable like the remote work session on Wednesday.  I think this format worked nicely in the smaller breakout rooms, which were fairly intimate spaces. 

  • Participants:
  • Eric Gianella – Code for America Data Science
  • Nick Hamlin – Global Giving Data Analyst
  • Tanic Togesh – DataSF, Data Scientist
  • Mohammed Radiyat – – Data Analyst
  • Nicole Smith USA for UNHCR, Data Scientist
  • Going past pure data access, think who we can use data to test assumptions and change actions.
  • When data is requested, document assumptions built into the request so those can be tested.
  • Access to the data can drive data questions on structure and lead to better understanding on how and why the data is structured, and if it need to be restructured.
  • It’s important to establish a culture of an iterative-based process.  Set the expectation that each iteration is an experiment.
  • Team uses slack to ‘crowd-source’ SQL queries
    • Use a web-base query tool that shows:
      • Results
      • Tables used
      • Query
  • Sensitive Data
    • DataSF – Setup data source to not include it by default
    • Separate out PII from various sources to one table
    • Train users to point others to data instead of maintaining it locally and sending/retaining on spreadsheets
    • Data warehousing makes PII segregation easier
  • ‘MDM’ – Master Data Management Tool
    • Helps remove & resolve duplications
  • To clean data, setup working groups for the data within a department/area of responsibility
  • Tools –
    • Lookr
    • Metabase – open source Data Dictionary Functionality

‘Procurement for a Smart City’ was another roundtable discussion, this time with the City of Denver, SF, and CityInnovate, a startup the is coordinating the Startup in Residence model for local government.  I was most struck by Janell Schafer, the purchasing agent for the City of Denver.  Her passion to continually innovate the purchasing process to find the best solution for her community was energizing and inspirational.

  • Panel
    • Janell Schafer – Denver Small Business Purchasing
    • Matthew McAllister – Denver Traffic Engineering
    • Jay North – City Innovate / Startup in Residence
    • Dee Prasad – Partnerships, City and County of San Francisco
  • 83% of Bids take 8+ months
  • 43% fail on first try
  • Denver
    • Tailor procurement model by  project & vendors
    • ‘No one right way’
    • Complex traffic signaling / ‘smartcity’ project
      • Created RFP with competition pools
      • Used personae to model the various vendor types they wanted to participate
      • As the RFP was created, regularly checked against the various personae to ensure that the changes didn’t adversely impact them
      • Performed outreach with the various vendor types to encourage participation and understanding
      • Banned Prime/Sub partnerships;
        • traditional subs could bid directly just on their specialized piece, allowing them to start relationships with the City. 
        • Removed marriages of convenience
      • Performed follow-up calls with dropped out vendors to learn for next time
  • STIR/CityInnovate
    • Challenge Based Procurement
    • Describe outcomes instead of features
    • Base evaluation of success on evidence
  • Procurement & SF Case Studies
  • Actions:
    • Look at SF Planning portal
    • Look at STIR in July for new cohort
    • Look at Open Contracting Data Standard

Finally, ‘A Service Blueprint for Successful User-Centered Digital Design’ workshop went over using a service blueprint.  The workshop was put on by Genevieve Gaudet (@genevieve_gaudet) and Kelli Ho (@kellular) of NAVA.  In the workshop we broke into teams and mapped out the process of obtaining a prescription medication.  Having never used a service blueprint before, I could see how this could be a useful tool to walk through a process with a department and look forward to trying it out in the future.


I love Oakland. It’s amazing architecturally and a pleasure to walk around in. On Thursdays, there’s a farmers market downtown right next to the Marriott Convention Center:


The best part of these two days were the lunches.  Speaking to the Communication Director for El Paso Texas and a Commissioner from Dallas County, it was both comforting and inspiring to hear we have many of the same problems, regardless of City: politics, technology, and bureaucracy… but we also had come with many of the same hopes of finding a tribe to be more effective.  To paraphrase another lunch talk with a member of the US Digital Service: “It’s just heartening to be here, to see so much… optimism”.  It certainly helps.  As I do from any good conference, I’m leaving energized, anxious to stop listening, and ready get to work.

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