It’s been a tough winter in Atlanta: The average high temperature in January is a balmy 51 degrees, so when the city was hit with an icy blizzard last month, chaos ensued.
Among the frenzy of social media posts and memes emerged a simple website: IsItSnowingInAtlantaGA.com. The site provides the answer, without any fluff. Today, for example, it says “Nope. Suddenly, it's sunny and nice.” It’s a lighthearted attempt to provide the city with some useful information while poking fun at the fact that 2.6 inches of snow essentially shut down the entire city. But for creator and 2014 Atlanta Code for America fellow Sam Hashemi, the site represents so much more. He is out to prove that government can be innovative, fun, engaging and cost effective.
Hashemi is a user-experience researcher and designer who spent time helping NASA bring the International Space Station’s system-board data to iPad apps. Along with Andrea Hansen and Tiffani Bell, the Atlanta Code for America team will contribute open-source technology and modern IT solutions where they are needed most.
StateTech caught up with Hashemi to learn more about why he decided to become a Code for America fellow and what he has in mind for the future of government technology.
STATETECH: Serious question: Can government technology be cool?
Hashemi: Government technology is cool. Have you ever thought about how water gets to your faucet? It involves, in no small part, rerouting entire rivers, a network of satellites predicting weather patterns, and a series of underwater robots checking for leaky pipes. Underwater robots! But when people think of government tech, they think instead about the old flickering TVs they watched while waiting in line to get their driver’s license renewed.
A big part of my work has been exposing the cool technology already inside government. I remember at NASA, one group was using a space telescope to discover hundreds of new planets in our galaxy. They were on the road to finding other earths, and they shared this information with the world by publishing a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet! I helped them find a way of visualizing these other planets, and a lot more people were suddenly excited.
Now that I’m working at Code for America, I’m hoping to help tell the stories of the amazingly cool work being done inside civic government.
STATETECH: How do you think governments can get citizens excited about collaborating and making cities better places to live?
Hashemi: Cities should encourage experimentation. One of my favorite efforts is what San Francisco is doing with their public spaces. They’ve created areas called Living Innovation Zones and invited artists to rethink what public space means. One of the first exhibits, a set of giant sound-focusing antennas, let people sit down and talk to people across the street. Walk by almost anytime of day, and you’ll see people playing with them.
I’d like to see cities try this type of experimental thinking in all the efforts they undertake. Not only does it get more citizen participation, but it results in a better government, too!
STATETECH: What do you hope to accomplish in Atlanta this year?
Hashemi: It’s a bit early to say, but the San Francisco team from last year serves as a great example for me: They found out a big chunk of people were falling out of the food stamp program because the renewal letter was too confusing. This was bad for the city, because they had to spend time reinterviewing people. But it was worse for the people who fell out of the program and didn’t realize it until they walked up to the register.
The team built a system to send out a text message before people’s benefits expired. It explained what was going to happen, and asked them to call back if they had questions. That’s all. It was simple and had a big impact: People stopped falling out of the program, and the city saved untold amounts of time and money.
I’m hoping to find an area in Atlanta where a small dab of technology can have this type of impact.
STATETECH: What’s the deal with iPads in space? Tell us more about that!
Hashemi: For that, you’ll have to come to my South by Southwest talk — Building Next-Generation User Experiences at NASA — this year. It’ll be a doozy, I promise.
Check out the Atlanta team’s blog, Will Code for Peaches, for ongoing updates on their work.