iPhone Apps for a Better Honolulu

Coding for a Fix: Better government through… iPhones?

illustration: victo ngai

"Have you ever been to a Neighborhood Board meeting?” Sheba Najmi of Code for America asks. “They’re painful! They’re nothing but complaints. People can take more ownership of these problems and get them solved faster.”

Najmi began the year immersed in a whirlwind of meetings with Honolulu government officials, techies and citizens trying to get a bead on what works, and what doesn’t, in this city. From that, Honolulu might gain a smart-phone app that can help citizens make their neighborhoods quieter, cleaner and safer before they rant to the board.

Modeled on Teach for America, the nonprofit Code for America (CfA) awards one-year fellowships to fix government problems with technology. This year, 26 fellows are working in eight cities, partnering with officials, citizens and tech-industry professionals. Najmi, one of three in Honolulu, came to CfA from analyzing user experiences at Yahoo. As a fellow, she’s helping to identify problems, invent solutions, and leave behind a system built using open-source software that city employees can refine.

Last year, fellows in Boston developed Adopt-a-Hydrant, enlisting citizens to keep fire hydrants free of snow, so firemen don’t waste precious time locating buried hydrants. It was so successful it’s being adapted in Seattle to keep storm drains clear, and in Honolulu to report broken tsunami warning sirens. Another Honolulu app rolling out this spring locates and describes city-owned artwork.

Honolulu’s Department of Information Technology has already created can-do.honolulu.gov to share public data and apps that range from real-time traffic reports to a calendar of Island festivals. Deputy director Forest Frizzell, Najmi, and the other fellows are reviewing which issues they can best address with a mix of web or mobile apps, web portals or GIS maps. By year’s end, the team expects to work on two to four smaller projects and one or two larger issues.

“This project is bigger than politics,” Frizzell says. “We’re able to solve real-world problems. Technology and civic engagement really is the great equalizer for helping solve community problems.” To keep tabs on the city and CfA projects, contact honolulu@codeforamerica.org or ffrizzell@honolulu.gov.