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How Code For America's Apps Benefit Kansas City


Now for people who enjoy using technology, it might feel like there's an app for everything. Some are mindless. I mean I'm a little embarrassed to tell you how much time I spend baking fake pizza on my mobile device. Then there are apps that are meant to actually be productive. And let's hear about one of those now.

In San Francisco a group software developers formed a non-profit called Code for America. They're developing apps to help cities function better for their citizens. This year, the organization is working in nine cities around the U.S.

Laura Ziegler of member station KCUR reports on what Code for America is doing in the Kansas City.


LAURA ZIEGLER, BYLINE: Andrew Hyder's a 31-year-old urban planner who's one of three Code for America fellows in Kansas City for the year. I caught up with him at a hackathon, an all-night gathering of like-minded young people who come together to brainstorm and write code or software. Hence the name Code for America. His twitter handle - hackyourcity - reflects the communal ethos around here that hacking now has a positive connotation.

HYDER: You take a system and maybe break it apart and find what pieces you could build for cheaper and easier, and then put it back together in this new form that can help everyone out, you've left it better than you found it.

ZIEGLER: And that's what Code for America fellows are trying to do. They're working on criminal justice systems in New York and Louisville, and in San Francisco and San Mateo on health and human services.

In the Kansas City area, the fellows are looking at ways to spur economic development.

You'd never know, looking at these new wood and brick town homes in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas, that the block was once blighted homes and drug houses. The other thing you would never know is that it took John Harvey and his non-profit redevelopment group City Vision, days, weeks, even months to penetrate the bureaucracy to begin to get this work done.

John Harvey says no commercial real estate company's ever going to jump through the same hoops as City Vision - whose mission it is to clean up bad neighborhoods.

JOHN HARVEY: I mean just to figure out the ownership and get control of the property you may have to go to the Register of Deeds, you may have to go to the tax delinquent real estate office, you might have to go to the treasurer's office, all just to get a hold of the property.

ZIEGLER: Harvey says with an app like the one Code for America is working on, he could retrieve all that information in one place, online, in a matter of minutes.

Fellows in the Kansas City area are hoping their web-based product will reach beyond urban renewal to nothing less than a sweeping new relationship between citizens and their government. The hope is it will extend not only to the energetic start-up, Internet community, but small businesses across the board.

Hyder and his colleague Ariel Kennan rolled out the first version of their app for some city officials and community leaders late last month. It's a how to manual for civic engagement, says Kennan.

ARIEL KENNAN: There would be a variety of lessons that you can go ahead and engage with. So it could be promote your business on line, pay your taxes on line...

ZIEGLER: Gwendolyn Thomas is a city employee and she has some concerns. She fields calls to the non-emergency help line in the Kansas City, Kansas Mayor's office.

GWENDOLYN THOMAS: You know, it may work for some of our younger adults in our community, but we get a lot of calls from our seniors and so they're not computer knowledgeable, you know, they don't have those tools.

HYDER: I'm working till like midnight...

ZIEGLER: Back at the hackathon you hear the word iteration a lot. That's hacker-ese for changes. Hyder says the fellows will continue tweaking the technology, making it easier to understand and more accessible. But the technology itself, he says, is not the biggest challenge.

HYDER: Keeping people engaged using these types of technology and the right way to ask questions and actually get valuable feedback, using it is the harder part.

ZIEGLER: The Code for America fellows will leave Kansas City in November. But the organization plans to leave its footprint here with something called The Brigade. It's a group of local volunteers who will continue helping citizens engage with city government online.

For NPR news I'm Laura Ziegler in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Ziegler began her career at KCUR as a reporter more than 20 years ago. She became the news director in the mid 1980's and in 1988, went to National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. as a producer for Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.
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