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Code for America's Jennifer Pahlka hopes to get small-town America using tech for good

Omar L. Gallaga, Digital Savant

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In her previous jobs, Jennifer Pahlka ran big technology conferences such as the Game Developers Conference, Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0.

On Tuesday, she'll be a keynote speaker at another big one, South by Southwest Interactive, where she'll talk about the organization she founded in 2009, Code for America.

The event, which will be broadcast free at 2 p.m. at, will detail how Code for America came to be, where it's going and how attendees can get involved. It will also be an opportunity for Pahlka to introduce the Code for America Brigade, which hopes to broaden participation in the organization beyond fellowships it awards each year.

Though its name suggests complex tasks performed by super-smart programmers and engineers, Pahlka said in a phone interview that the main goal of Code for America is much simpler: "It can mean a lot of different things to different people. But it's the idea that they have the power themselves to create the technology to make their communities better."

That could mean using publicly available city databases to make apps to better map, say, crime rates or emergency response times in certain areas or to build a tool for public walking tours of outdoor art.

"It's very different from city to city," Pahlka said. "It occurred to us that the way to get apps for cities written would be through a national service program."

This year, that program has 26 fellows chosen from 550 applicants who've left their jobs and in some cases moved across the country to help organize communities. The nonprofit is largely funded by donations from companies including Microsoft, Google, O'Reilly Media, the Rockefeller Foundation and Nike.

In Austin, three fellows came to talk to city leaders, nonprofits, and local tech companies and workers about ways to improve the community. That culminated in a Feb. 25 Hackathon that took place in eight cities, including Austin.

The Code for America Brigade, which is being launched at SXSW Interactive, is an effort to spread that effort to smaller communities and to get many more people involved, Pahlka said.

"We don't have a particular number in mind, but we'd like to see this spread, and we see a lot of interest," she said. "We get contacted by people all over the country asking, ‘What can I do?' Our response is to do it where you live. Work on your own community and find others in your community who share your aspiration."

She also wants to tell those interested in changing their communities that this interest doesn't have to be political, something she'll address in the keynote.

"I'm planning to talk about people's relationship to government as distinct to their relationship to politics. We have a lot of common goals for many people. Politics is not necessarily the proper input for achieving those goals," she said.

Pahlka believes in voting, but, "it's insufficient if your goal is to make government more responsive to us and reflect our values."

Though a lot of work that Code for America does is actual coding — writing programming scripts and utilizing so-called APIs to wrangle vast amounts of data — Pahlka and the Austin Fellows stress that anyone can get involved, not just those who have technical skills.

At SXSW Interactive, attendees skilled in social media, marketing, design and other areas are prime candidates for the Brigade.

"SXSW is just a great community," Pahlka said. "It values the broader technology community, building stuff together — which is an important value of ours — and having fun.

"It's not so much just about technology. It's about people. I think South by does that extremely well," she said.

Contact Omar L. Gallaga at or 445-3672; Twitter: @omarg

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