Why you should care

Because some of today’s most sought-after tech workers are quietly changing the face of America.

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They sound like a budding Silicon Valley dream team: a designer who studied engineering, a cartographer who worked as an analyst in a big city’s office of innovation and technology, and a former Spotify engineer who helped the digital and data teams during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Only these 20-somethings aren’t building a startup. And they’re not situated anywhere close to the Valley.

In fact, they’re Code for America fellows who are spending a year to help Pittsburgh’s city council modernize its outdated administrative systems and boost the transparency of spending on “goods as small as pencils to services as large as bridge construction,” says Shelly Ni, the team’s 26-year-old designer, who’s part programmer, part sketch artist.

While so many of their peers are busy courting the Apples, Amazons and Googles of the world, a growing army of “civic hackers” — consisting mostly of designers, programmers and data scientists — are using their eclectic skills to solve government and civic problems, with their own twists. Their work has included local initiatives in the Big Apple and the Windy City, such as Smart Chicago, a civic project that wants to improve lives through tech, and a pilot program that assists with the city’s public planning policy where it sold plots of vacant land for just $1. They’re also behind nationwide rollouts like Turbo Text, which sends text message reminders before elections.

The technologists are quietly changing the face of urban centers by helping them run faster and smarter.

Indeed, the civic hacking movement is invading practically every corner of the country, fine-tuning the nuts and bolts of American cities. While some civic hackers are employed by nonprofits, such as Code for America, others work for companies like Philadelphia-based geospatial software provider Azavea, which has helped pinpoint major bike thefts and map the city’s most dangerous intersections. Some of them have caught the attention of city councils, including designer Nikki Sylianteng, who is behind a massive redesign of L.A.’s parking signs. The technologists themselves are quietly changing the face of urban centers by helping them run faster and smarter, and they’ve become some of the most sought-after employees in tech.

Some known as “interaction designers” help people, well, interact in their daily lives — and they earn salaries that start at $80,000, nearly double the average pay for an entry-level designer, according to a 2014 survey by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Ni, who falls under this category, has spearheaded a prototype of a new pamphlet for the New York City Department of Probation to help people more easily apply for state ID cards and designed a smartphone app to make it faster to apply for food stamps. That app, designed for a company called Propel, is now working with Philadelphia’s government to help residents access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits they need.

Others, like Alok Sharma, a data cruncher in Detroit, work from a laptop at home. He created Pain Pitch a few years ago so governments could “pitch their pain” to techies eager to solve their problems. He realized officials needed help and only specialized people could do the job — usually at a steep price — so he cut out middleman firms by connecting technologists directly to governments. So far, he’s helped launch a number of projects, including Birdhouse HQ, an app that helps caregivers track health and behavioral information for children with autism. “If we can get some guy to stop making Find My College Roommate apps and create a diabetes tracking software, that’s huge — that changes the world,” Sharma says.

What makes these techies different from some others in the sector is that they’re generally not interested in coming up with the next must-have gizmo or whiz-bang dating app that might take social media by storm. “I see a lot of the focus in the tech world is made for a very specific demographic, like the Silicon Valley tropes,” says Ni. But not, she adds, on how to build a 21st-century government “for the people who are hungry, people who are older, people who are trying to find health insurance.”

Of course not everyone who enters the socially minded corner of this profession sticks around. Mark Baskinger, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, says his students generally want to have a positive social impact but that even the most mindful designer can get lured away by the “ridiculous salaries” some of them get offered. Certain initiatives may also never expand beyond a single city. Pain Pitch, for example, has been limited to Detroit, though Sharma plans to take his network of engineers and designers national.

Meanwhile, budget constraints, slow-moving bureaucracies or uninterested council members have prevented some cities from snapping up certain ideas. But that isn’t discouraging civic hackers like Shea Frederick, a former AOL developer. He’s created SpotAgent, which uses Baltimore’s open data on parking tickets to predict whether locals might get a ticket where they’re parking, while Baltimore Vacants maps the city’s 1,500 vacant homes based on local data releases. So far, Frederick says, the government hasn’t shown any interest. Yet he plans to keep going with new ideas. “We’re really inquisitive,” says Frederick. “It’s kind of a niche thing, but it’s a lot of fun.”

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