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Agile 2013 keynote: How software developers help their countries

At Agile 2013, Code for America's Chief of Staff Abhi Nemani described how software developers can use Agile techniques to improve local government.

What can software developers do for their country? Abhi Nemani, chief of staff at Code for America, kicked off Agile 2013 with that question in his opening keynote Monday. He answered his own question with tales of how Agile techniques have improved local government outreach programs, citing examples of success stories for non-profit Code for America and its volunteer developers. The annual Agile Alliance conference runs Aug. 5-9 in Nashville, Tenn.

Agile 2013 conference Nashville logoBoth governments and big businesses no longer have the luxury of taking years to build and deliver software that is merely acceptable. Today's software developers -- in both the private and the public sectors -- must build applications of the highest quality, and do it quickly. Empowering that change in development organizations is what the Agile Alliance is all about, said Nemani, whose work entails promoting positive change in government organizations through better use of technology.

Volunteer developers pay it forward

Code for America (CfA) finds experienced application development professionals who will volunteer as fellows on projects at low wages because they, too, want to improve the application development efforts of local government organizations. Cities come to CfA with a general problem, such as improving education resources for food stamp enrollment. The fellows kick off a project in the usual Agile way, collecting requirements via staff and user feedback. Their goal is to bring their first prototype back to the client government organization in just six weeks.

How developers drive government services improvements

At Agile 2013, Nemani described example projects in Honolulu, Philadelphia, Boston and elsewhere. During one of those projects, CfA volunteers created a site-wide search bar for the GOV.UK website. In the past, government websites had been separated by internal departments. While it's easy to do initial site development in silos, a decentralized government website is not user-friendly. "People don't think that way," Nemani said. "They're asking, 'What department should I contact about my particular concerns?'" Having a cross-site search bar is a quick and effective way to help most users answer that question.

Today's software developers -- in both the private and the public sectors -- must build applications of the highest quality, and do it quickly.

In Honolulu, a creative, tried-and-true approach was required to fix the city's website. The search box approach taken from GOV.UK worked well, but during the requirements phase, CfA developers found existing content was poorly written and did not provide answers to people's common questions. "It takes time to create good content," Nemani said. The team of three fellows couldn't rewrite all the content, so they crowdsourced the content production by organizing a write-a-thon.

In the write-a-thon, Honolulu residents volunteered to take raw data from various government organizations and write pages for the city's site. The volunteers have continued to find ways to improve the content, even after CfA left.

Tapping social media for change in Philadelphia and Boston

In Philadelphia, CfA was tasked with finding a way to bridge the gap between the community that wanted change and were frustrated the government wasn't taking action, and the government that was taking action and frustrated it couldn't see what people really wanted.

Attendance at city planning meetings is low, pointed Nemani, but there are a lot of people that participate in social media discussions. The right solution was to build a social marketing campaign for the city. CfA asked questions on bus stop billboards like, "Would you use a bypass to this particular area if it were built?" Social media options like tweeting and texting were given to make it easy for citizens to give feedback to city planning committees, even if they didn't make it to City Hall.

In Boston, there was a little bit of both problems. The overarching need was to make it easier for parents to decide what school their children should attend. The existing information was in long and confusing brochures. The rules included many stipulations, some of them potentially confusing, such as the recommendation that children live "within one mile" of the school they attend.

The problem in this situation was whether one mile traced the route the child would walk to school or a straight line between the school and student, or something else. According to Nemani, the CfA development team was able to work all the stipulations into a single algorithm to show parents on a map which schools their child was eligible to attend. This way, parents could quickly and easily build a list of schools to research.

Focusing on the Agile feedback loop

In all cases, Nemani said the trick was to get feedback early and often. Software developers need to understand users' needs and bring their solution back to the user early and make sure it does what they want. This type of quality software development is great, but Nemani suggested bringing it to the government where changes improve lives in a fairly direct way, an even greater challenge with deeper rewards -- although not necessarily in a financial way.

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