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Civic Tech: The Unsung Hero of Our Time | Isabella Martinez

A pleasantly warm March evening greeted tech geeks and professional developers as they ventured to downtown Hartford for the monthly Code for Connecticut meetup. The seventeenth floor of the Upward Hartford building was beautiful in a formal, businesslike way and the city lights looked like fireflies from the windows. In contrast to the darkness outside, the rooms along the hallway were painted neon-yellow and white. The first room, after turning a corner, held the coding meetup. As a space meant for innovation and creativity, the room was filled with various dry-erase surfaces on walls and tables. Hastily written purple numbers and bullet points littered down in a line on the far wall as a presentation projected onto it. Sitting in front, below the screen, sat cocaptain of Code for Connecticut, Jose Padilla, dressed as casually as the surrounding group—blue jeans and sneakers seemed to be the dress code. Despite the lax attire, all eyes were on him as he directed the meeting. 

Jonathan Payne, Cocaptain of Code for Connecticut (Photo Credit: LinkedIn)

The other cocaptain, Jonathan Payne, waved in newcomers with a friendly smile as they hesitantly poked their heads into the room. These arrivals were met by Padilla, Payne, and six other techies arranged in a messy circle, discussing how to fix the coding for a newsletter to make it easier for those with screen readers to view it. The cocaptains encouraged the newcomers to contribute knowledge or opinions on the coding. One of them, a man with thick glasses and a bulky sweater draped over his thin frame, quietly spoke up about how to change the code to include detailed hover text. The room filled with the sound of tapping keyboards as the group enthusiastically considered his change.

The newsletter they were working on was for a client organization called Amplify. Based specifically in Connecticut, the Amplify staff reaches out to towns and cities in north central Connecticut to help assess behavioral health-related needs within the community and advocate for more effective resources. To accomplish this goal, Amplify has members who provide interventions on substance misuse, as well as members who reach out to communities to evaluate current behavioral health services. 

In a time where social change is needed, developers and activists are teaming up with Code for America, a national organization dedicated to creating projects to improve their communities. Code members work with local governments and small businesses in an effort to utilize technology for the public good. This method of communication between government and citizen is also known as civic technology. Among eighty-five other branches within America, the projects by the Code for Connecticut brigade focus on civil rights. 

A few of their current projects include an app where one can access and understand their rights as a Connecticut and American citizen, as well as creating a web extension to help pardon clinics. Pardon clinics help erase previous juvenile records for people having trouble finding housing, jobs, or attending college. With this extension, the clinics in Connecticut could more efficiently remove past criminal records for those who are eligible. Additionally, with the app, more criminal records could be prevented if the accused is distinctly aware of the laws in their area. These projects will greatly benefit citizens throughout the state.

Jose Padilla, Cocaption of Code for Connecticut (Photo Credit: Social Media Profile Picture)

As the meeting drew on, the programmers grew casual and comfortable as they naturally switched between the Amplify newsletter and personal conversations about other projects they were working on without any interruptions occurring—it was like they were all sharing the same stream of thought. A platinum blonde woman seated near Padilla, her laptop covered in stickers urging to “Fight the patriarchy!”, spoke about altering the newsletter colors to be more color blindness friendly. Meanwhile, two young men spoke amongst themselves about a work in progress project. This one was called SurPlusPlus, which connects places with a surplus of food, clothes, and other items to areas where those necessities are lacking. They pulled in the other newcomer, a small-framed girl similar in age, and eagerly discussed what they each could do for the project.

Civic tech is about this type of work. It is not just about working out what is best in terms of effective business practice, but rather improving the lives of everyone by helping to deplete wastefulness within the community. Code for Connecticut does this through person-to-person interactions or person-to-government interactions. They partner with local governments or nonprofit organizations that support their view of tech being the key to creating a better society. A future project titled Clean Up App is an example of governmental collaboration. Working with the Connecticut River Conservancy, Code for Connecticut will aid in coordinating group cleanups of rivers, streams, shorelines, parks, boat launches, trails, and more through an easily accessible app. Though this may take time to progress, the leaders of the Connecticut brigade have high hopes.

As technology advances, it is becoming clear that tech is a young person’s game. As seen by the average age of the coders in the room, programming for the people is being taken up by young techies. Younger generations should become more involved in the field of civic technology. The increasing access to technology, as the fabric of society frays at the seams, should be the push that they need to get involved. Taking a stand and finally making a difference during these troubling times are surely a necessity. 

Code (Photo Credit: TechCrunch)

The parent organization, Code for America, is taking on this task. According to Lou Moore, co-CEO and Chief Technology Officer, they are pushing for the government to get involved to support the delivery of services across the states in light of troubles like the coronavirus. Individual branches are also stepping in. Code for California members are noticing the increasing demand for food assistance, such as SNAP, as the unemployment rate skyrockets and leaves many people without a proper paycheck and no savings to fall back on. Eleanor Davis, a Senior Program Manager, makes note on the website about their GetCalFresh program—an easy digital application for the SNAP program to aid those who are suddenly in need. As this world has caught up with the growing presence of technology, the drastic hit of quarantine sped up this already fast-paced, ever-changing world. But, like all humans before us, we will adapt and overcome, using modern solutions and creative minds. 

The Hartford meetup carries on past the stated ending time, as the coders get lost in their brainstorming. Slowly, people begin to filter out, and the meeting officially adjourns when Padilla takes his leave. There are eager handshakes and wishes to see each other next time as the group breaks apart, each off to do their own thing.

The Code for Connecticut brigade has enormous potential for such a small number of members. However, changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic pose a challenge to the group, as it does with the rest of the world. In person meetups are not an option as they were before, and communities are facing a whole new set of problems with layoffs and health issues. It is a good thing these hackers love taking on challenges as they continue to come up with innovative solutions.

Isabella Martinez is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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