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In Asheville, volunteer computer programmers seek to help the most vulnerable

working together

Among other projects in the past year, members of Code for Asheville have lent their expertise to address issues involving formerly incarcerated people and homeless individuals.

From left, Code for Asheville co-captain Eric Jackson, core team member Patrick Conant, and co-captain Jesse Michel meet at Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne in Asheville, N.C. From homelessness to race and policing, Code for Asheville has embarked on a path to help the most vulnerable in the past year, following a national Code for America trend and pursuing a mission to use technology to make the community better.
Angela Wilhelm/The Asheville Citizen-Times/AP
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  • Beth Walton
    Asheville Citizen-Times/Associated Press

Everything changed when the members of Code for Asheville started going to the public instead of inviting the public to them.

Suddenly, the group of volunteer computer programmers in Asheville, N.C., "civic hackers" as they call themselves, was fulfilling community needs in a way they had not imagined.

One minute they were sitting in the back of a meeting of the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Coalition, the next they were partnering with the city to help formerly incarcerated people find jobs and housing so that upon re-entry to society inmates could avoid life on the streets.

From homelessness to race and policing, Code for Asheville has embarked on a path to help the most vulnerable in the past year. Such an approach follows a trend of Code for America, the larger organization that Code for Asheville is a part of, to focus on using technology to make the community better.

In Asheville, one member of the group marched with the homeless downtown, imploring city officials to spend more money on affordable housing and less on arresting homeless people. Housing not handcuffs, they chanted in November.

Partnerships have been formed with homeless service provider BeLoved House and the NAACP's Racial Justice Coalition to use data to better understand problems involving police and marginalized communities.

Members of Code for Asheville are also working alongside the Economic Justice Work Group, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations, to see how the city contracts with minority businesses.

Data are giving groups the power to sit down with policymakers and ask for more, said Dee Williams, who is spearheading efforts with the Racial Justice Coalition and Economic Justice Work Group. It's all about accountability, she said.

"You can't really solve a problem unless you have data to define what that problem is," Williams said. "We're making these entities like the city and police department acutely aware of the fact that folks are keeping data so they will have to keep data as well."

For years, organizations have relied on using a narrative to lobby for change, said Code for Asheville member Patrick Conant. But that only took them so far, he said.

"A lot of community groups are now seeing data as the big missing piece in the work they are doing," Conant said. "We help them get it, analyze it, and see what the data shows about the stories they are hearing."

Members of Code for Asheville sat beside members of the NAACP and other groups in a city conference room last month. They listened as people talked about urban renewal and development on the Southside, which some felt was leaving Asheville's African-American community behind.

Racial justice organizers in the room cried foul because the city had spent just hundreds of dollars with black-owned construction vendors in 2015 compared to hundreds of thousands of dollars with other groups.

Raw data doesn't always make people feel comfortable, said Eric Jackson, co-captain of the local Code for Asheville chapter, who also works for the city.

This is all part of a new era of government accountability, the city's digital services architect said. It is one where records are open and available and data analysis can come not just from the experts, but from the people themselves.

The national Code for America Network is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization set up to help make government work better.

There are hundreds of chapters working on behalf of all people, wrote Code for America Chief Technology Officer Lou Moore in a November essay.

"By working to provide poor, hungry, and otherwise underserved citizens better access to more effective government services, we think we can have the greatest impact for good," he said.

The Asheville chapter started in 2012, as one of the earlier brigades in the country, Jackson said. "We're techies who work to help communities work better," he said.

The local group traces its roots to the City of Asheville, which has an open data policy and says that "citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight."

The city's chief information technology officer, Jonathan Feldman, played a critical role in building the partnership, Jackson said.

In its early years, Code for Asheville would host hack-a-thon nights where it would invite the public to help solve some sort of community problem – affordable housing, transportation access, or food security, for example.

Together, Code for Asheville and the community would brainstorm potential solutions and create a product, or a prototype. It could be as ambitious as a database or as simple as an infographic.

Sometimes 50 people would show up to the events, which were usually organized by a core team of 10 Code for Asheville volunteers.

The problem was those projects would slowly wane, Jackson said. Code for Asheville's members were capable of building a product, but as volunteers they weren't in a position to see the projects to fruition, he said.

That's when Code for Asheville started going to the meetings of other groups. There they found the people who knew what the problems were and the organizations that were already working towards the solutions, Jackson said.

"This really is a new way of operating – of having the conversation between community groups and between community groups and the government," he said.

Code for Asheville member Conant joined BeLoved House for a joint press conference in November. Using city and county data obtained through public information requests, the two organizations found that in the past 10 years, nearly 8,800 citations were issued to possibly homeless people.

Nearly half of those were for second-degree trespassing, which entails a court fee of $190 and additional fines levied at a judge's discretion.

Asheville is experiencing a housing crisis, the Rev. Amy Cantrell, executive director of BeLoved House, said at the event. If people are punished while they wait for help, then they have a criminal record – making it even more difficult for them to find a place to live.

"We don't want a city that criminalizes homelessness," she said. "Some of us don't have anywhere to go."

Conant, who had stepped away from his work at his technology firm PRC Applications to stand with Cantrell, backed her up.

"This one law seems to be used for one specific purpose, and I don't think that's right," he said in front of a news camera.

The announcement sparked discussion and debate among Code for Asheville and the city.

The best thing about data is that numbers don't lie, Cantrell said.

"Data allows organizations to say, 'This is really happening; this is what we're seeing on the ground,' " Cantrell said. "It lets you be solution-oriented. We understand the problem better because we have numbers and we can see it over time."

Code for Asheville is all about civic engagement, the minister added.

"This is really participatory government – government of the people, by the people and for the people," she said. "Code for Asheville is all about democracy. We are both doing much better work together than we ever have alone."

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