GOOD & IBM present
Welcome to Figures of Progress

Big Data is empowering and driving 21st Century leaders, whether in business, city government, or even sports. This year, we’re expanding Figures of Progress and inviting you to take part in learning and doing. Join us as we continue the dialogue and explore how big data is being harnessed to change our world.

GOOD & IBM present

Jennifer Pahlka

Founder & Executive Director, Code for America

In 2011 Government Technology named Jennifer Pahlka as one of its Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers in Public Sector Innovation and the Huffington Post named her the top Game Changer in Business and Technology the same year. Previously, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb, in conjunction with O'Reilly Media, and co-chaired the successful Web 2.0 Expo. Pahlka’s early career was spent in the nonprofit sector, and she’s now executive director of Code for America, which works hand-in-hand with public servants to better serve communities by utilizing the power of coding and the web.
As an industry leader, what most influenced you on the road to your current position?

I look back and it seems that every choice I made earlier in life contributed to my decision to start Code for America. But probably the most critical moment was when I began to understand Tim O’Reilly’s notion of government as a platform. This single idea has such power to transform the institution of government, and when we pair this with another realization of O’Reilly’s—that government is simply what we do together—then we are talking about a fundamentally new way of acting collectively. The Internet has done such a great job of this organically, but if we are going to have government that scales and works effectively for its constituents, we’ll need both the institutions and citizens to understand the platform model and play by new rules.

What type of data and technology is the most valuable to your organization?

Data is the lifeblood of Code for America. One of our most basic tools is a data catalog. We work with city governments to publish enormous amounts of raw data for anyone to use, either to analyze, visualize, or build applications. Once it's out there—and once a community is inspired and activated around that data—so much value can be created that you might never have anticipated.

That’s the broadest approach with data. Each Code for America team is also in the trenches. They are in a city learning the pain points for the government and the community. And they discover opportunities to use technology and, with that data, work on the problems that matter. In New Orleans, the team was able to integrate about a dozen different data sources and publish them in a simple, beautiful, easy-to-use interface, so that citizens could find out the status of blighted properties in their neighborhoods. It makes sense that the pain points in New Orleans were about blight. In Chicago, it’s been about service requests to the city: When is this pothole going to be fixed? There’s a change in the conversation with citizens when this information is easily available in the right contexts.

But all this ignores a critical role in data and analytics in transforming governments. When data can actually inform decisions–anything from the most efficient routes for street sweepers to what color a button should be on a web app to critical elements of city planning–we get government that works better for all its constituents. We use tools internally like KISSMetrics to help our teams make data-driven decisions about technology and interface development. These tools show how you can move the decision process away from a sea of conflicting opinions (and politics) and towards a demonstrated understanding of what produces results.

How has data changed and informed the way you interact with government agencies and improve the lives of their constituents?

Data, like technology, is both far easier and far harder than it used to be. Take one of our projects in the City and County of Philadelphia, where city planners there partnered with CfA fellows to get broader feedback from citizens on the Philadelphia 2035 plan. The tool the fellows built, called Textizen, is remarkably simple for both the planners and the citizens to interact with. You don’t need technical skills to launch a survey or to give your opinion. You need a web browser in the first case, and a text-message enable phone in the second case.

In contrast, our team in Chicago is working with service request data from citizens and trying to make sense of how to organize and present it. It’s incredibly complicated. The challenge isn’t creating useful data, it’s taming a data beast and finding ways to make that data actionable by both institutions and individuals. In the private sector, data scientists are in high demand as companies increasingly rely on data to drive not only their strategies but to surface new opportunities. We need to have the same level of sophistication around data in the public sector.

What are the qualities and/or skill sets that you believe future successful leaders will need to have?

Let’s start with humility and a level of comfort with uncertainty. The world changes too fast now for us to have long term plans that aren’t elastic, and you miss the best opportunities if you aren’t open to serendipity. Lane Becker and Thor Mueller wrote a great book about “planned serendipity” called Get Lucky, which really helps explain this phenomenon. There’s also the twin abilities to listen well, and to tell stories. Turns out you can't tell great stories if you haven’t deeply listened.

Lastly, but maybe most importantly I think, is the ability to get people to do great work, and to do that, you have to understand what motivates people to be awesome. To me, Daniel Pink really nailed it with Drive. After a certain threshold, it’s not money. It’s autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Read his book or watch his TED talk. It’s really hard to create environments that offer those three things to every stakeholder, but it’s worth trying.

What is your greatest hope for how your work can influence positive change in our world?

My vision for what Code for America could do for the world has grown so much since we started. At first, it was really about how government could be more efficient, transparent, and engaged. But as we’ve gotten deeper into it, we’ve seen that government probably isn’t fixable without fixing our notions of citizenship. We have to start thinking of government as a platform that lets us create the communities we want to live in, not a product we buy and install and get mad at when it doesn’t work perfectly. We have to use the tools of today to reclaim the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, a concept we can bring back from the past.

View Pahlka's TED talk, Coding a Better Government, here.

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Response Box

Pahlka believes that the government can be a platform to create the communities we want. How do you think data and technology can make us better citizens?

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