This is the first installment of an ongoing series that catches up with last November’s TEDxPhilly speakers.
For more videos of last year's TEDxPhilly talks, visit the event's YouTube channel.
Jennifer Pahlka has made cities her life work. She considers herself a product of American cities, from New York, where she grew up, to Oakland and San Francisco more recently, and now Philadelphia, where she’s visited close to a dozen times in the last year or so. She refered to Philly as a “city of love” in her TEDxPhilly talk last November at Temple University.
As founder and executive director of Code for America, she helps match web professionals with cities to create efficiency and promote accessibility among municipal offices by sorting databases, building apps, and freeing up data. Philadelphia is one of only two programs to be a part of CfA for two consecutive years
, and this year’s edition recently welcomed CfA fellows Alex Yule, Elizabeth Hunt, and Michelle Lee.
Flying Kite talked to Pahlka and the three new fellows to catch up on their work in Philly and how CfA has grown into a game-changing experience for cities across the country.
Flying Kite (FK): How has your project in Philadelphia advanced since TEDxPhilly?
Jennifer Pahlka (JP): The big news is that our 2012 fellows just started their work in Philadelphia on Monday (Jan. 30). Michelle Lee, Alex Yule, and Liz Hunt are the new team, and they are accomplished, talented, and passionate about making the City of Philadelphia work better for all its residents. They're starting five weeks of meeting with everyone they can and figuring out how they can make a bit impact there this year.
Part of their work will be carrying on Change by Us
in Philly, which currently hosts 418 ideas and 50 active projects, in which citizens are helping to make their neighborhoods better.
FK: Any changes to report? New partners, funding, accolades or other growth?
JP: At the end of last year, Code for America received a $1.5M grant from Google to start two new programs, including what we call the CfA Brigade, which will help civic developers and others anywhere in the country to stand up civic apps for their communities, and a start up accelerator for civic businesses. We're hoping to have a big Philly presence when we get it up and running.
FK: What is one thing you've learned since TEDxPhilly about cities or Philadelphia?
JP: Sixty percent of the world will be living in cities by 2020!
FK: What's the next milestone for your work and why is it important?
JP: Our call for applications for our 2013 cities program closes on April 1. We hope that more and more cities around the country want to be a part of this movement, so that more cities can work openly, efficiently, and be deeply engaged with their citizens.
FK: What are your specific tasks while in Philadelphia?
Elizabeth Hunt (EH): As part of our year-long fellowship with Code for America, we’re spending 5 weeks in discovery mode in Philadelphia: understanding how the city serves its citizens, what Philadelphians want and need from their city, and how technology might help make local government more open, efficient, and engaging.
Alex Yule (AY): To that end, we’re meeting with citizens, officials across city government, as well as members of the tech and civic communities. We are also searching for champions – strong local partners who can help us build solutions, and maintain them once we’re gone. We want the tools and solutions we build to live on!
FK: What do you think of Philly's potential as a tech hub/leader?
Michelle Lee (ML): At Code for America, our past successes can be attributed to great partners at every level of city government and community. They help us make sure any technology we build is relevant to the real, existing, and complex urban challenges that cities face today.
Similarly, Drexel University’s ExCITE
(Expressive and Creative Interactive Technologies) program is bridging technology with the arts. Philadelphia is an established national leader in healthcare and education, and has recently won major awards for sustainability and the arts. There’s a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of our sustainability, education, and especially our healthcare strengths in the same way.
FK: What are Philly's most pressing tech challenges?
AY: It seems to me that Philadelphia’s most pressing challenge is that people outside Philadelphia don’t seem to know there’s a vibrant tech scene here. So it may be difficult for companies here to attract more tech talent.
FK: What has impressed you about technology in Philadelphia?
ML: You could argue that the relative scarcity of technology investment capital here so far has actually had a silver lining. Philadelphia’s tech community has created sustainable businesses, very much in touch with their users and customers. I don’t believe you’d see a dot-com bust here.
AY: Philly has a strong core of companies who live in Philly because they truly love and believe in their city. Some other cities are full of companies who are there because “they’re supposed to be.” You get a very clear sense of that traveling around the city and chatting with people -- there are no opportunists or fair-weather friends here. People are in it for the long haul, they’re dedicated to building this city up as an even greater place to live and work.
Is there a difference between your initial perception of the city and the way you feel after being here for a bit?
AY: I’d heard about Azavea’s great mapping work while I was still back in school -- but I had no idea the scene was so vibrant! The city really is a bit of a hidden gem.
EH: I’m from San Francisco. I’d never really thought about it as a place with a tech scene. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned there are thriving tech, civic, and arts communities. Some of the initiatives we’ve learned about -- the Urban Apps and Maps program at Temple and the new ExCITE program at Drexel for example -- are strong indicators that Philadelphia is a city on the verge of becoming an exciting hub of opportunity, whether you’re a tech person, an artist, or civic leader. Now is the time to move to Philly!
SUE SPOLAN is Innovation & Jobs News editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
From left, Liz Hunt, Alex Yule, Michelle Lee, Mayor Michael Nutter, Manager of Civic Innovation and Participation Jeff Friedman, and Director Of Communications And Strategic Partnerships Desiree Peterkin Bell,