Code for Anchorage is a group of tech-savvy, civic-minded volunteers who write software to help Alaskans access data and link them to government services. One example is a free, opt-in service that notifies users via text message each time election returns are updated. Another is CourtBot, which — with help from the Alaska Court System IT department — sends text reminders for court dates.
The group’s captain is Brendan Babb, whose day job is Chief Innovation Officer for the Municipality of Anchorage. Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove caught up with Babb at a downtown Anchorage coffee shop to talk about Code for Anchorage.
(To get alerts for updates as primary election results roll out Tuesday night, text “vote” to 907-312-1012).
BABB: Code for Anchorage is part of Code for America. There are a nonprofit out of California, and they have a different brigades which is kind of inspired by like firemen’s brigades, but basically (it’s) local volunteers that work on trying to make government services work better. So, we’ve done a lot of stuff, like you can text in a bus stop number and it’ll tell you when the bus is going to arrive, and just did something CourtBot, which will — you can text in a citation number and it’ll remind you the evening before for your court hearing. So we’ve done a lot of text based stuff.
GROVE: I feel like this is the sort of thing that now is the type of infrastructure of the time that we’re living in. Am I on the right track?
BABB: Yeah, I think so, in terms of working with government to see what information and data they have and trying to make services that people would use, go where people are like, Because it’s gonna be easier to get people to look their. The election one came out of a hackathon we were working on, sending results out, and yeah people have kind of latched on. It basically just watches a web page each minute to see if it’s been updated and then sends out a text to let people know when it’s been updated. Because we noticed at Election Central, people are just constantly refreshing their phones sort of like, ‘”Oh, maybe we could take that part out of it.”
GROVE: Tell me about the hackathon part of that. How does that work? Is that like you throw out a challenge people try to come up with something? Or how does it work?
BABB: We’ve had a couple hackathons in the past, and they’ve kind of been open-ended but some people will present problems and people will work on those, or people bring their own ideas and someone brought an idea of like, “Is there a way to send updates for elections?” And then over a weekend people worked on that problem and came up with something that kind of worked by the end of the weekend. And then Code For Anchorage, we meet every two weeks.
GROVE: Tell me more about the CourtBot. Is that what it’s called?
BABB: Yeah CourtBot is something we just launched about a week ago for National Day of Civic Hacking. If you have a citation number for, let’s say you have a speeding ticket that you can pay, you could text it in and it would tell you when your court date was and you could opt in to get a reminder the day before.
And it also works for criminal cases as well. So if you had multiple hearings, it could send you reminders that evening before for that. The goal is to reduce failures to appear, which can mean if you miss an appointment, it might change into a warrant for your arrest or things might be escalated just because you weren’t able to remember an appointment. I mean, when I get my hair cut I get a reminder a couple days before and just have to text “C” back. So it’s nice to have the court system be as friendly as that.
GROVE: What other stuff are you guys working on or problems that you’ve thrown out that you’re thinking about trying to create similar services for?
BABB: We’re still kind in the early works of looking at other projects. But we’re trying to figure out how to know if a bike rack was full on a bus and trying to think of creative ways to solve that. We have a (Women in Crisis) and (food stamps) pre-screener where you can text “child” in to a number or “food,” and then it’ll give you the list of questions, like eight or nine questions, and help you see if you would likely qualify or not. And then if you would, maybe take the next step to apply there.
GROVE: It strikes me as the kind of thing that, if you’re a coder, it makes sense how you would contribute to something like this, but are folks that are not into coding, are they also involved?
BABB: Yeah, there’s things that we want to test. We want to figure out how to market stuff. Everyone has great ideas on how to solve things, so it’s open to other people and everyone has talents that we can use.