Today we’re sitting down with Jeff Johnson, OpenGeo developer extraordinaire and Code For America San Diego Brigade Captain. Jeff is a talented entrepreneur who has his hands in a bit of everything at OpenGeo, but is largely focused on GeoNode. Today we’ll be sitting down to discuss his recent work with Code For America.
David Dubovsky: Hey Jeff, thanks for taking the time to talk.
Jeff Johnson: I’m happy to do so.
DD: So how long have you been involved with Code For America, and how did you get involved?
JJ: Well about two years ago I was introduced to a local group called OpenSanDiego. We stood up some apps with OpenGeo tools (specifically GeoNode) to make county GIS data easier to access. I got involved because I was (and still am) dissatisfied with the applications that are stood up by our local Joint Powers Agency (SANDAG) and I thought we could do better with the data they provide.
A year later the city held an Apps Competition, and they ended up using one of the apps we setup as the data catalog of record for that competition. And then at the 2012 Code Across America event we set up a few more apps. At that point Code for America asked OpenSanDiego group to join their Brigade program and we did so happily. I was named ‘captain” of our brigade.
DD: Congratulations on the success of OpenSanDiego and being named brigade captain. Can you give us a little detail about some of the projects you’ve worked on, or are working on?
JJ: Currently we’re working on a few different projects. Including:
- eCitizens.org, a scrape, aggregate and alert system for local government documents that allows citizens to subscribe to keywords and get notified when those are mentioned in local government meetings and documents. We based its architecture on the Sunlight Foundations OpenStates and Scout projects.
- Another project we’re working on is the San Diego regional data library, which we aim to eventually federate with cities.data.gov.
- We’re also looking into helping with the City of San Diego’s Participatory Infrastructure Budgeting Program that was piloted last year and will be taken operational this year. This one is a big challenge for the city. There’s a good deal of cross cutting concerns about inclusiveness, aggregating the data, making it useful etc. I think that many of the OpenGeo tools could potentially be brought to bear on this problem.
DD: It sounds like you’re all very busy making progress on a lot of projects. Can you tell me a little bit about the event you recently hosted?
JJ: As apart of a second annual Code Across America event (held in 22 cities across the country, and coinciding with International OpenData Day) we hosted a local instance in San Diego. These events are usually hackathons (or code sprints, as most developers prefer to call them), but we ended up spending much more time building and growing relationships with our local open government and open data community.
There was representation from the San Diego Mayors office of Open Government and Civic Engagement and by staff members from the Councilmember’s office who chairs the infrastructure committee that is responsible for the CIP program. There were also attendees from our Community Planning Council and from a few different city agencies. Because of the unique attendance breakdown (non-developers outnumbered developers) we ended up having a code sprint where zero lines of code were written! To really build and deploy sustainable solutions in Local Government we need to build this support. All in all, it was not what I had planned or expected, but I think it turned out better this way.
DD: And did this event result in you speaking in front of the city council?
JJ: It was actually the aforementioned Council Infrastructure Committee chaired by Councilman Mark Kersey of the 5th district. His committee is tasked with dealing with Rebuilding and Improving San Diego’s Infrastructure.
I spoke in favor of an agenda item to create a community input policy for the cities Capital Improvement Project, a roughly $200M/year budget for making infrastructure improvements. Last year the City undertook a pilot project to solicit public input on this budget, which ended up being a seminal effort in participatory budgeting. Our CfA brigade would love to be involved in the operationalization of this policy by bringing together existing open source projects such as See Penny Work (created by Jessica Lord, Code America Fellow) and by using apps like Shareabouts (which is developed by OpenPlans, OpenGeo’s parent organization) to crowd source community input.
DD: Can you outline what you told them for us?
JJ: One of the key things that I explained is that implementing sustainable civic technology solutions that address problems and improve citizen engagement is really a four-step process. First groups like ours must build credibility within local government, then look for champions, then find problems that we can solve and only then can you implement and deploy solutions.
There’s actually a fifth step that I did not mention, which is to make sure these solutions are sustainable. As technologists, I feel that we often focus on the third and fourth steps and neglect the others. My public comment was intended to really start working on the first and second steps such that we can make sure that we really nail it on the last one.
My primary reason for speaking was to explain what CfA is, and offer the larger group, as well as our local brigade as a resource for Councilmember Kersey’s committee as they move forward with creating and then implementing a Community Input Policy on this CIP budget.