Why I'm Coding for America

Cross-posted from Code for America’s Blog

I code for America because I believe in the power of technology to make the world a better place. Technology, when it works, amplifies the impact of individuals – making it easier for friends and families to connect, informing and inspiring people, and empowering communities to solve real problems together.

But too often, technology just doesn’t work. It’s costly. It’s hard to use. It solves the wrong problems, or introduces new ones. It forces people to spend more time clicking and less time thinking. Frankly, it’s not hard to understand why so many people see technology as a hurdle to overcome instead of the assistive force it could, and should, be.

I think we can do better. I want to build technology for our cities that people will embrace because it relieves frustration, solves problems, and helps them do their work. I know this is possible, because I’ve seen it happen before.

I spent the last few years building technology in an industry with many problems to solve: specialty coffee. Working at Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers in Portland, Ore., I helped create tools that tracked coffee as it is traded and shipped around the world, gave coffee farms access to high quality educational materials to improve their coffee quality and productivity, and told the stories of farmers who grow the coffee you and I drink.

These apps, though small, had real impact in coffee-growing communities. This experience taught me that to build technology that really works, you must collaborate with your users and stakeholders on their own terms, while respecting their motivations and needs. You must engage with them as true partners, transparently communicate your own motivations, and always be open to criticism. If this approach can work to solve problems faced by Tanzanian and Peruvian coffee farmers, surely it can work to solve problems in our own communities as well.

Whether working with coffee farmers or governments, by being transparent, you not only avoid creating problems in the first place, but also have a framework to solve problems that do arise. And by being collaborative, you’ll know early on that the technology you’re building is the right one.

That’s the reason why I know my work as a 2013 Fellow will have an impact. The problems I’m addressing are challenging. And the context is unfamiliar. But that’s exactly why I’m here. I code for America because I have more than the chance to learn about problems in our communities: I have the chance to build technology to solve them.