Jennifer Pahlka: Crowdsourcing can revolutionize government

If you asked the average passerby to name a revolutionary symbol, it's a safe bet that you will never hear "a fire hydrant" mentioned.

But this morning at VERGE DC, Jennifer Pahlka made the case that a fire hydrant could indeed be a transformative item.

Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, took the stage to share One Great Idea:

"I have a great idea for you guys: What if we all pooled our resources?" Pahlka asked. "You in the room should be pooling your resources around making corporations more sustainable, but i actually mean everyone -- everyone in the country. If we all chipped in, we could pave the roads, we could create public transportation, we could limit emissions.... Now, obviously, my great idea isn't new -- it's called government, and it's been around for a long time. But we've lost sight what government really is."

Pahlka said that most people think of government as the things they're angry about: The lines at the DMV, divisive politics, the potholes in the road, etc. But government is actually what we do together. And while overall levels of trust in government are at 60-year lows, but among the Millennial generation, they are the most pro-government generation in decades.

fire hydrant"It's not because they think government works now," Pahlka said, "but it's because they know that government can work. They grew up on the internet, and they know it's not very hard to get people to do things together, but you have to architect the systems the right way."

Which brings us to the fire hydrant. Al the fire hydrant (which is not the one pictured at right, unfortunately [that's a stock fire hydrant photo from Shutterstock]) is one plug out of thousands in the city of Boston. But Al has been adopted (and named) by a neighbor, one who signed up on a website and agreed to shovel the fire hydrant out from under Boston's ponderous snowfall as a way of helping firefighters do their jobs faster.

That website was one of 21 programs developed by Code for America fellows last year when they took an expedition to Boston to see how government works, and how technology can help government work better.

But despite being the smallest, simplest program of the bunch, Adopt-a-Hydrant is successful ways that few government programs dream of.

"It's doing something that few government technologies do: it's spreading virally," Pahlka said. Code for America apps are open-source, and someone in Honolulu's city government decided to use it on that tropical island -- not to uncover snowed-in hydrants, obviously, but to track the many tsunami sirens on the island's beaches to make sure they work in case of an emergency.

And Adopt-a-Hydrant (or Adopt-a-Tsunami-Siren), has also spread to Seattle to clear out storm drains, Chicago is using it to clear snow-covered sidewalks, and five other cities are using the technology for their own crowd-sourced municipal solutions.

Pahlka said that this app, and others created by Code for America fellows, point out a new way to think about how government works. She said that another program, one that helps you find the best public school for your children, was developed by 3 Code for America fellows working part-time over the course of 2.5 months. Had it gone through normal channels, it would have taken two years and cost $2 million, Pahlka said.

Programs like Adopt-a-Hydrant are a "shot across the bow to the institution of government," Pahlka said. "It suggests how we might do things a little bit differently.

"It's not that I want government to work like a private company; we don't want that," she added. "We want government to work like the internet itself: open, permissionless, and generative."

Al the fire hydrant is important because it shows how a new generation is tackling the process of government -- not as an ossified institution, but as a problem of collection action.

Technologies are making it possible to reframe the function of government in ways that let it scale, and bring citizens into the operation of their city.

Getting people involved, changing how people interact with their neighbors and their government, is a project that can have wide-ranging impacts. An engaged population is one that can, and will, tackle problems large and small that currently overwhelm us.

"We're not just consumers, and we're not just consumers of government, putting in our taxes and getting back our services," Pahlka said. "We're citizens and if there's one thing we learned in our first year of Code for America, that we're not going to fix government if we don't also fix citizenship."

And it can all start with a fire hydrant.

Photo from VERGE DC by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group.