Creating open source social change

Coding is not typically associated with solving local issues. Bright monitors and complex computer language does not immediately translate to local government solutions in many minds. However, coding is one of the primary ways Code for San Jose is helping the community.

Code for San Jose began in 2014 with roughly 10 people. In 2016, the organization now boasts 30-40 members. The group is under the Code for America umbrella.

Members of Code for America describe their organization as a national nonprofit that believes government can work for the people and by the people, in the 21st century. They are part of the larger civic tech movement which is attempting to make government data more transparent and available.

“They are really about helping to make government, especially local government, municipal government, serve their community better by using technology more effectively,” said Michelle Thong, one of the co-captains of Code for San Jose.

To meet this goal, Code for America employs several programs, one of which is the brigades. The organization estimates there are more than 45,000 volunteers in brigades all over America. Brigades range from a variety of volunteers with different skill sets. This includes technical, design and project management skills.

Part of the larger Code for America mission is “embracing user centered designs, thinking about how residents and businesses experience government services,” Thong said.

The journey of Code for San Jose can be traced to the journey of how co-founders Thong and co-captain Kalen Gallagher found themselves in San Jose.

Gallagher, a San Jose native, went to a few Code for America events and became more involved in government after running for Campbell Union High School District Board in 2012.

“I was pretty shocked at how far behind San Jose was in the civic innovation space,” Gallagher said.

He began digging further into the idea and realized that things he assumed would exist in San Jose didn’t, including a local Code for America brigade. This lead to the creation of Code for San Jose.

Thong became interested in the Civic Tech Movement in 2011. She previously worked as an engineer in the tech industry in San Jose and wanted to make “a concrete difference” in her community, leading her to become a graduate student in Urban Planning at UC Berkeley. Her involvement began with Open Oakland, an Oakland-based coding brigade also under Code for America.

Thong took a job in San Jose because she thinks “San Jose is a really interesting and exciting place.”

Compared to somewhere as world-famous as San Francisco, San Jose seems slightly off the radar. Thong believes this makes San Jose “the underdog of the Bay Area.”

Gallagher began Code for San Jose by creating a website and running ads on Facebook. This eventually led to Thong and Gallagher launching Code San Jose and the duo became co-captains.

A common tool organizations use is “hack-a-thons.”

“Hack-a-thons” are events in which a large group of people come together and create technical projects with a specific theme. These themes range depending on the coordinators.

Code for America brigades use “hack nights” a variation of “hack-a-thons.” The key difference is that “hack-a-thons” assume a problem can be diagnosed, solved and implemented in a weekend. During “hack nights,” coders are allowed to create and implement solutions at their own pace, finishing whenever they feel comfortable.

A typical Code for San Jose “hack night” begins with an introduction of the brigade and its various goals. Then either Thong or Gallagher takes new members and begins “onboarding.” This is the process in which new members become aware of projects currently in progress. This helps new members either establish connections through shared interest or allow potential new members to create their own projects.

One such project that began on a “hack night” was Open Disclosure, a project that has spanned across California.

“There were three or four brigades in California working on helping campaign finance data be more transparent and helping people understand where money was coming from in local politics,” Gallagher said. “What’s interesting is that the four different brigades had four different ways of doing that, that all met a certain need.”

Vivek Bansal, an officer of Code for San Jose, is one example of an individual who joined Code for San Jose and rose to become an officer in the organization.

“Open Oakland had a campaign finance system, it’s huge. It has all these details about all the candidates, who their donors are etc. We sort of wanted to take our own take on it.” Vandal said. “Simpler, more map friendly, prettier version. So we built our own. San Francisco also did the same, they built their own version of it.”

Bansal began working on the Open Disclosure project in 2014.

“We had an open hack day I think two years ago. I got people together to work on the San Jose version of the Open Disclosure project,” he said. “It was a one day project, then we kept it going and I pushed to a version two and from there I kept on … I stuck around and there was an open call for leadership and I said ‘I’m a fit for this.”

Community is a large aspect of Code for San Jose not only in helping the community, but also creating one. Part of the ability to work closely with strangers is native to the tech culture.

“You go to a hack-a-thon , for example, usually no one knows one another and they start working on stuff pretty quickly … and those part of this group are comfortable talking to people,” Gallagher said. “Lastly I think we’ve done work to make sure we’re not strangers meeting up a couple weeks … they turn (in)to your friends.”

Code for San Jose is tackling problems in communities in new ways and simultaneously connecting people who wish to be innovative.