It’s helped develop tools to help spot bogus taxis, to prevent cattle theft, to alert people to lifesaving equipment and to help people from evacuated cities stay in touch. As the Code for All movement grows, its teams could be coming to a neighbourhood near you soon.
Code for All was born out of Code for America, whose members work with scores of US cities to solve problems with technology. Volunteers and fellows join city administrations to build apps and foster new approaches to problem-solving.
“People saw Code for America, came to us, and said they wanted to do it too,” says Lynn Fine, Code for America’s international programmes manager. Three pilots were created, in Mexico City, the Caribbean and Germany, where Code for America teamed up with local groups to get the schemes off the ground. Now there are 30 groups working in 11 countries.
“Unlicensed taxis are a big issue there - I wouldn’t have hailed a taxi there because I couldn’t tell it was real,” Fine explains.
“But a fellow developed an app where people could take a picture of a taxi number and they could check its credentials.
“People can not only see if the taxi’s real, but they can also get reviews. It’s a very useful tool for travellers’ safety.”
Help for Fukushima evacuees
Beneath national level, regional brigades have already formed – 13 in Germany and 5 in Poland. Other countries with Code for All projects include Australia and Taiwan (pictured below).
In Japan, a Code for All brigade got to work for the city of Namie, evacuated after the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident.
“Three years on, the residents still can’t go back,” Fine explains. “How do they keep their sense of community when they’re all in different places?
“So Google gave them tablets, and the Code for Japan team built apps to build communities. It was civic technology for the sake of community – I really admire it.”
Broadening the use of technology was a key aim in Namie, and poses a challenge for all Code for All’s brigades and fellows.
"We have the technology - but how do you make it accessible?,” Fine asks. "Should the mayor be making announcements on YouTube? Will older people feel more comfortable using tablets than cell phones?"
Other Code for All projects include an open data project to combat theft of cattle and farm produce in the Caribbean, and an eye-catching scheme from Code for Ireland: Save-a-Selfie, which will encourage people to take photos of themselves next to public defibrillators in Dublin. The snaps go on a map, which enables people to know where their nearest life-saving tools are.
“I love that! We should put selfies in all our projects,” laughs Fine. The real magic of Save-a-Selfie, she adds, is that it’s simply working with and alerting people to what already exists in their communities.
'So many ways to help'
Code for All’s projects – just like Code for America’s – are all open source.
“We publish the API and we want to show off all the projects,” Fine says. “It’s for efficiency’s sake – let’s not reinvent the wheel.”
The Code for All approach has gone down well in cities and local governments Code for All has worked with, she adds.
“They’ve welcomed it - cities recognise how resource-constrained they are,”Fine explains.
“There has been some push-back from IT departments – and that’s understandable. But the key is to work with them.”
And Code for All’s gone beyond just coding too – volunteers who can help with other skills are just as welcome. Fine suggests people who want to start a Code for All group in their area should take a look at Code for America’s community programme to get a feel for what’s happening.
“Our fellows have helped write open data policies, while many groups have no experience of marketing or PR – there are so many ways of collaborating beyond coding, and all those are so important,” she adds.
“One core role is that of a storyteller – somebody who’s comfortable with social media. People don’t get excited by the code, they get excited by the stories.”
Code for Taiwan photo from kirby wu, used under CC-BY-2.0.