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Changing Roles in Code for South Florida’s Leadership

TL:DR; Our founder, Gregory Johnson, is leaving his role as Executive Director at Code for South to focus on a new opportunity that he believes will push this work forward.

This week, I step down as Executive Director at Code for South Florida. The past 2 years transforming Code for Miami, Inc. into a powerhouse civic technology charity centered around a partnership that took user design and open data into rapid prototypes at scale. This experience was some of the best impact moments I can remember. We have been fortunate to have advisors, recruit talent and volunteers, and receive support from many in South Florida who believe government can work for the people, by the people in the digital age.

The end of 2020 made a few things clear to me. Our region is in great shape with local leaders to steward better government for the people and as an organization. Our staff and partners have all the skills to bridge that for the future. As we think about delivery-driven policy some of the biggest problems facing both our public and private sector are how we handle our data and technology infrastructure.

Over the years we have received many asks by c-suite leaders to have a better model of serving data infrastructure projects. Often these projects required more resources in terms of dedicated staff with bigger budgets as a vendor. In response to that, I will be leaving to focus on a new challenge aimed at solving those problems which will require my full attention. To date, as an organization our bank account is 7x higher, our staff is 5x in size, and our project delivery success is higher than ever.

Our Program Manager Livio Zanardo and Partnership Manager Joan Lee will take the reigns of the organizations with my full support sitting as interim co-program leaders. The rest of the board will continue to support and I will offer advice as they drive Q2 program goals and set up Q3. Livio was recruited in 2019 and after his first meeting was recommended by Julie Kramer as a perfect fit to support the organization in storytelling. Joan Lee was brought in 2020 and after adding value to our partnership and volunteer strategy has shown leadership and commitment.

Code for South Florida has accomplished so much from our inception in 2019 as a reinstatement of a charity called Code For Miami. We made a drastic shift from a slack-based and event community into a partner-based and digital service organization. In a network of 90 different organization, we became top 2 second to New York City’s BetaNYC, and across we stood in the top 5 for an organization with paid staff. Under the leadership and talent, we have had the highest impact, revenue, partnership, and outcomes in FY20 higher than in recent years combined.

My last commitment last quarter was to position us to be a tech-led practitioner community where today we stand on pillars in our community who are serving various spaces in expanding diversity, technology, and leveraging open source. This setup in my belief can position us to establish the relationships and resources we need to flourish in years to come building pipelines for talent to co-build.

Thank you to all who have worked with, helped, and cheered for Code for South and this important work throughout my leadership. On behalf of myself, Joan, Livio, and the whole team, we look forward to a continued partnership.

Your former Executive Director,

Gregory Johnson

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Helping Underserved Communities with Mentorship and Pirate School

TL:DR; Pirate School is now a fiscally sponsored project by Code for South Florida under our Diversity in Tech initiative. As a 501(c)(3) organization all donations are tax-deductible towards this project. 

March 16, 2020 — Miami’s digital divide is real. While our region grows with new talent, founders and funders we know that statistically the tech workforce has a problem with diversity and inclusion. South Florida is in unique position to tell a different story but this story doesn’t happen without a mover. It requires coordination by people who have landed tech jobs and led successful careers in a network. Last year, we made a bet on Front-End Miami to build community. This year we are making another bet to advance tech-practioner led communities. We are sponsoring Pirate School led by Ptah Dunbar as a fiscal project partnership to accelerate the mentorship for minority communities. 

A part of our Diversity in Technology Initiative is providing pathways to help support and guide the next generation of South Floridian technologists. The best way to do this is to set leaders who received offers and climbed the tech ladder. Ptah Dunbar has that experience and more. He has been a CTO for hire who has run Dev Agency and helped support Code for South Florida on major software projects with various non-profits. Currently, he works at a public traded company, New Relic, as a Solution Consultant. He has had a track record of teaching, supporting, and being an active tech ecosystem leader. This is why this sponsorship will propel his existing work and vision to build a non-profit corporation on this work in the future.

Through the sponsorship of  Pirate School, we hope to help Ptah shape a vision for providing mentorship and opportunities that lead to more minorities leveling up in their tech careers. We will support channels that guide local talent in cohorts or groups through specific programming that he will run independently. Through his partnership, we will shape new models on this and hope to see his growth and launch of a non-profit organization that will scale up this work beyond Year 1 into something of a repeatable impact.

We are building out a core program that helps provide mentorship quarterly on an ongoing basis of our Diversity in Tech mentorship program. 

Code for South Florida will use this sponsorship to help further our goals towards helping build a civic-minded workforce that focuses on accelerating contributions of local talent with government and charities. In the last years operating we noticed an uptick in feedback from junior or entry-level contributors for mentorship on projects. To help fill this gap, we are building out a core program that helps provide mentorship quarterly on an ongoing basis in our Diversity in Tech mentorship program.

Code for South Florida’s fiscal partnership is a part of our Diversity in Technology initiative 2021 goal to accelerate our reach in hard-to-reach and underserved communities increasing civic engagement across South Florida. We hope to support Pirate School as we build a mentorship framework centered around connecting talent across different levels and trades to participate in contributing to charities and government open data projects.

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Microsoft Customer Story features Code for South Florida

This is a repost from Microsoft Customer Story.

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Pathways for public engagement in budgeting to address community needs

This article is a re-post from Medium. You can read the original text here.

As a John S. Knight Community Impact Fellow, I’m exploring public engagement in budgeting that help address community needs through tech-enabled demonstrations working in my hometown of Miami, Florida.

This work comes at a critical time when socioeconomic disparities and the Coronavirus pandemic have led to massive evictions, unemployment, and food insecurity, and sparked historically significant movements, including what may be the largest movement in U.S history, Black Lives Matter.

The budget and how its funds are allocated are reflections of government priorities. People are hurting, and it’s important to make sure governments , especially at the local level, prioritize the people’s needs. When everybody is working in the open, everybody’s interests are aligned. Through best operating practices of the digital age and agile methodologies, I am building a digital service prototype that demonstrates the possibilities of open budgeting for more transparent and engaged governments. This prototyping effort will focus on working at the municipal level for English and Spanish-speaking communities.

In Miami, public comment and residential feedback have increased substantially – do much that the elected officials opt not to listen to it all, leaving this precious feedback with nowhere to go beyond a full mailbox. Taxpayer dollars pay for the salaries of these public servants, and the growing number of protests indicate that many communities want to see significant changes in how their tax dollars are used.

When your money is going to people not listening to your needs, it creates distrust and unrest. By having a transparent budget, process local government can gain trust within the community. The City Budget connects the preference of people with government outcomes. If the preference represents the minority or selects a few we get outcomes that don’t align with the community’s true needs. More often, this majority is low-income marginalized communities and is hurting the most in our cities.

A snapshot of the City of Miami’s Operating Budget Expenditures in 2018

Constituents vote on public officials and these public officials appoint their own functionaries, who on principle should represent the needs and interests of the people that elected them. Therefore, people not only want to know where their tax dollars are going, but they want to decide where it should be invested. Some cities are exploring ways to include resident feedback in the budgetary process. In Philadelphia, we see a partnership between the Participatory Budgeting Project and the City of Philadelphia to use participatory budgeting, taking inspiration from some shining examples from other countries who have successfully adopted other Participatory Budgeting models.

As a public interest technologist, upgrading cities to serve the 21st century by demonstrating better digital services continues to be my focus. We need to improve antiquated budget processes that don’t connect to positive outcomes and look towards digital public infrastructure models that facilitate feedback between citizens and their local governments. These models will require new approaches to how budgets are determined and allocated. It will also require open-source software and public code supported by local talent to help cities create better experiences and outcomes. The opportunity in the JSK Community Impact Fellowship is for me to explore approaches that include local media organizations and public budgeting to find a small but significant way to improve an existing process that may point to better opportunities in the future.

Funding What Works and Reinvesting What Doesn’t

A user research survey 2020 report from South Florida by Code for South Florida.

Elected government officials are in charge of allocating budgets at the state and local levels. The assumption is that they are making the best decisions for the people, but as the public has cried out during 2020 this feels further from the truth than one would expect. What if people could be more involved in the budgetary process? For example, take movements like Black Lives Matter. What if elected officials could look somewhere and find the exact asks and needs of the people not only based on sentiment and feedback, but also on budgets directly proposed by citizens? Many want to accomplish this, but struggle navigating paths to get there. The prototyping work I am pushing solves to address this problem through a localized solution replicated at scale.

Many areas of government have inflated budgets. Redirecting taxpayer dollars to some other agencies and services may be more productive in meeting the needs of the community. According to former President Obama by using the term “defund police,” the Black Lives Matter movement misses a huge audience. The same goes for publishing a fancy budget visualization with no context. For this reason, my work is not just proposing an open budgeting model but working with local media organizations to share this in insightful ways through data journalism and storytelling. If anyone understands messaging  for local communities, it’s local journalists and media organizations, who tell the stories of the places where they reside and the communities they live in. Reassigning budgets based on performance and focusing on programs that are successful is not only a practice that the private sector should champion, but it should be standard practice in government and public interest sectors. Making the budget simple to understand for the community is an important step in this direction.

Leveraging Tech Experience Scaling Digital Services for Community and Organizations

A photo of 2015 — Sunburst Visualization of the Miami-Dade County Budget. Write-up found at New Tropic Miami.

Throughout my years as a technologist, I have worked with many teams to unlock budget data from PDFs and spreadsheets to create information technology services through accessible user experiences and interfaces. In 2015, I worked to visualize Miami-Dade County budget data as a side project with Code for Miami. Our work was recognized by Miami-Dade County and journalists alike inspiring the City of Miami’s Budget Director to create his own. What we learned is fancy graphs get attention, but simple bite-sized visuals get people to understand. 

What gets people to act in a meaningful way? In the participatory budget process you are often given an operating budget and the opportunity to vote your priorities. In an improved process, I am exploring ideas of placing data visualizations and associated projects with ways people can tune in to upcoming meetings related to that budgetary item.

An ongoing theme in my career is helping organizations make better financial decisions and engage the public through technology. As both an operator and product owner, addressing big problems start with understanding the needs of people, community, and organizations. 

We have already seen how important government involvement and response is during a crisis like natural disasters and pandemics. This is why it is important to listen to the needs of our community. In our research, we discovered people want to get involved in learning about their budget but find it confusing and inaccessible. They also are confused about where the money is going and how budget allocations will help them in their time of need. We spent time understanding better ways to improve how budgets are presented so people can make decisions, and decision-makers see the views of their community.

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Visualization of Florida’s Population according to U.S. Census Bureau Data

Florida is a melting pot with a population that is composed of many immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. Culture is important when introducing new models of budgeting because many foreign-born U.S. residents have different takes on how governments work. This is why in my research we reviewed how other communities look at public budgeting in English and Spanish. In our case, such a large proportion of Miami speaks Spanish that local media organizations like the Miami herald have Spanish-speaking arms like “El Nuevo Herald” (“The New Herald” in Spanish language).

According to the European Parliament, Latin America has one-third of the world’s examples of participatory budgeting at the local government level. Participatory budgeting activates people around an election-like process for allocating municipal funds. This predisposition among Latin American immigrants to expect a different type of resident-government relationship is why I believe the Miami community is open to using new tools that will help them better understand their budget. Evidence in scale and adoption of open source solutions are already present in participatory budgeting, which makes Miami the ideal development site to expand this type of work in a form that matches our unique needs.

Scaling Through Open-Source Practices

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Code For South Florida strategy for scaling public services for local governments.

The pandemic has shown a big gap in how the state and local government in Florida serve people, highlighting a need for services that are reliable and serve people with dignity. In my work, I hope to discover scalable prototypes that help bridge awareness of community needs in budgetary decisions through residents’ feedback. The answer to this work might not be the creation of a new tool but the improvement of an existing service by the government. 

This project seeks to figure out pathways to make sure every service built by the government serves a diverse and inclusive community. I’ll measure our success by seeing how much participation our pilot attracts from citizens and organizations. I will look at cloud computing, data journalism, and more importantly new civic engagement models across different areas to encourage people in Miami to adopt. The magic of this work is open source that allows others to learn from or replicate this type of work in their city or region without hassle. My hope is that the work Code for South Florida is doing with municipal partners like the City of Miami can set an example that inspires journalists, academics, activists, and elected officials at the municipal level across the U.S to not just research and adopt participatory budgeting practices, but also rethink how governments and its people can foster a better relationship in the name of public interest.

Gregory Johnson is a JSK Community Impact Fellow and spearheads digital transformation for the public, private and community sectors through his work as founder of the nonprofit Code for South Florida.

Feel free to reach out to igreg@stanford.edu or greg@codeforsouth.org

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Civic User Testing

Have you ever had to look up information on a government website? File for a permit application? Or set an appointment at the DMV?

These points of interaction with government services provide an opportunity for the city to improve layout, language, design, colors, or other subtleties that could impact a users ability to complete a task.

Code for South Florida is proud to support the improvement of digital services through local user testing. We compensate community members to test digital services and provide feedback for improvement.

If we want South Florida to thrive, then the forms, websites, applications, and instructions for engaging with government services must be clear, tried, and tested.

Below are active tests we invite visitors to complete. Please note, you must complete the task requested before providing summary on the submission form.

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What Is “Civic Technology”, Anyway?

Code for South Florida’s mission as an organization is to build an ecosystem that fosters Civic Technology. Also known as “Public Interest Technology”, Civic Technology refers to the digital tools, services, and workflows that support and enhance the relationship between people and government as it relates to communications, decision-making, and service delivery. Civic Technology Projects often achieve multiple outcomes, such as improving access to information, streamlining services, and enabling government-citizen interactions.

Below is an explanation of these outcomes with some examples from Code For South Florida’s network.

Improving Access To Information

One of technology’s most important features is how it enables the quick access, display, and interpretation of data. Through collaboration with government agencies, we can make public domain information more readily available to citizens for civic engagement or individual representation.

For example, one of our flagship projects, LocalAir.org, is collecting data on air quality that would otherwise be unavailable to the city. Once the data is collected, aggregated, and published, then it becomes an asset to other agents of change like researchers and civic engagement groups who can freely use the data to advocate for better environmental protection policies, or educate locals about the uses of data.

Streamlining Services

Technology and service delivery have always been hand-in-hand. People create services that deliver on a specific promise, and technology solutions enhance these services through process automation, universal access, and massive scalability. In Civic Technology, this can often manifest as a transforming in-person, analog process for social assistance into a simple fast modern form digital service.

GetCalFresh.org, a project by our strategic national partner Code for America, enabled low-income citizens to apply for food stamps online in only 10 minutes. Also by Code For America, GetYourRefund.org enabled low-income individuals to file their taxes online with VITA organizations, a process that is customarily analog and in person, which helped citizens get well over $500,000 in their federal tax returns from the comfort of their internet-enabled devices.

Enabling Government-Citizen Interactions

Public Officials are chosen through popular elections to represent the policies their constituents agree with. However, elected officials need feedback and opinions of their constituents to continuously enact policies representatives of public opion. How can elected officials and community leaders understand the needs and wants of the public they serve and represent, and how can this be done in real-time?

Our project People Budget is tackling this question by fast-tracking the development of a participatory budgeting tool that enables citizens to deliver feedback around different budgeting projects proposed by city leaders. The “participatory budgeting” concept already exists in over 50 cities around the country in some form. The Miami Budget App in development as of the time of this writing is set to introduce a new dimension to the locally established democratic processes through the active application of Civic Technology.

How Do We Build Civic Technology?

The projects and platforms listed here are all examples of what Civic Technology can do for communities, cities, and governments. While technology solutions and software programming resources are more abundant than ever, successful implementation Civic Technology is a community effort involving technology professionals, elected officials, and every day citizens alike. Public services and the technology solutions that support them do not exist in a vacuum, and must be designed with the user’s (i.e. the citizens they serve) best interests in mind. Civic Technology ultimately provides an opportunity to reshape governance and political processes by designing and updating them for the 21st century, and paving the way toward a better South Florida that can set an example for other local governments around the country.

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Fort Lauderdale Slack

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Miami Slack