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Q&A with Catherine Bracy: Technology, innovation and the public sector

We can't wait for our data journalism symposium next month. We have a great line up of speakers, and over the next couple weeks we will be giving you a chance to get to know a few of them. This week we spoke to Catherine Bracy of Code for America (CfA). Before joining CfA, Catherine worked for Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and helped lead the Obama campaign's technology office in San Francisco. 



   Catherine Bracy


Q: Tell us a little bit about CfA and your new role there:

A: We’re a nonprofit that collaborates with municipal government looking to foster innovation and infuse 21st century technologies into their citizen engagement practices and approaches to problem solving. We have a fellowship program that brings together small teams of designers, programmers, and technologists -- teams embed in cities and counties to aid the municipalities in their efforts. Simply put, we want government agencies to share information in a manner that is more in line with the modern ways the public is communicating today.

This year we launched Code for All, and my role is to take the CfA mission international. I’m really excited to see how our fellowship model can translate in different country contexts as we cultivate new partnerships with local agencies abroad.

Q: Why do you think government agencies are still lagging behind in technology and innovation?

A: I don’t think it’s for any lack of desire on their part. In most cases, these agencies want to be the best providers they can be, but slashed budgets and other bureaucratic and cultural hurdles (like procurement processes that favor big software companies) can make it challenging for them to be as nimble and innovative as they’d like to be.

On the flip side, many technologists may be quick to overlook government as a place for innovation. Part of what we want to do is to help bridge these two groups. We want to help technologists see the public sector as vital to our communities and a space where technological innovation can benefit society at large.

Q: What’s a successful examples of a symbiotic relationship between technologists and government agencies?

One example from our fellowship program came out of New Orleans. Our fellows were working with the City to address the issue of blight -- a problem the City’s been grappling with since the 70’s and was made worse by Hurricane Katrina. It’s a major quality of life issue and hindrance to economic development. In the course of this partnership, the fellows and the City realized that it was very difficult for citizens to find comprehensive information about blighted properties because different details about a specific location were spread across multiple departments. To solve the problem, the fellows developed a user-friendly online database, that allows anyone to enter a property address and get close to real-time status of a location, right there on the computer screen. They called this tool “BlightStatus,” and the fellows who created it launched a startup to make their talent, and the tool available to other cities now at a much lower cost than database products from typical IT companies -- the code is also open source.

Q: We are excited to have you speak at our upcoming symposium. What are some of the issues you hope to explore?

A: In some ways there are many similarities between nonprofits like CfA and data journalists -- we both hope our work will lead to greater accessibility and transparency in government. But there are some big differences, too. Unlike news organizations, CfA is not trying to be a watchdog organization. We work on bureaucracies, not on politics. In some ways we have an easier time getting government agencies to release data, but we may not always be working with the datasets that reporters need to detect problems and keep agencies and politicians accountable. One of the questions I want to address in my talk is how can civic groups, data journalists, and technologists look at the big picture and collaborate to improve the openness, responsiveness, and effectiveness of the public sector. Are there places that we currently diverge? If so, what does that mean for the potential of technology to improve government?

Q: We are excited to hear more! Are there other things you hope to learn from the symposium or discuss with participants?

A: I am very curious to hear how journalists are thinking about their field. For so many years, the definition of journalism has been wrapped up in traditional mediums like newspapers and broadcast. Now there are so many things that we call journalism. I’d love to hear what others have to say about how the evolution of this definition shapes their work.

To hear more from Catherine, join us for our symposium on May 4, 2013.