News and analysis
February 25, 2013

Foundation Pushes Technology’s Ability to Transform Government

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on Monday announced three new grants, totaling more than $9-million, designed to jump-start efforts to use technology to get people more engaged in civic life and to help local governments run better.

Code for America, a three-year-old nonprofit that seeks to increase the number of technology experts working to make city governments more open and efficient, will receive a $5-million grant from Knight’s Tech for Engagement program.

Code for America has four programs that help city governments and civic-oriented start-ups become more efficient through the use of technology. One of the programs, dubbed “Peace Corps for geeks,” deploys technology fellows to selected cities for a year.

In Boston, Code for America developed an app called “Adopt-a-Hydrant” that allows people to volunteer to be responsible for shoveling snow away from fire hydrants following big storms. That app is now being spread to other cities.

The new Knight grant will enable Code for America to expand one of its four programs to 13 new communities. Although the organization typically works in a new city for just one year, in three cities where Knight has a resident program director, the program will run for four years, to test whether the longer period enables the group to have a greater impact, says Damian Thorman, the foundation’s national program director.

This is the second grant Knight has awarded the organization. In 2010, Knight became the first foundation to support Code for America, with a $750,000 grant.

“We’re doubling down on this model,” Mr. Thorman says. “We want to give Code the opportunity to really scale their work.”

'Civic Technology’ Program

Knight also announced a $3.12-million grant to GovLab, a program at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, to train graduate students so that they can help develop technology-based solutions for communities.

GovLab is run by Beth Noveck, a visiting professor and a former deputy chief technology officer at the White House.

Mr. Thorman says the grant may produce 500 new graduate students over five years who are trained in “civic technology”—the use of technology and data to help governments run better.

“This is an emergent field,” Mr. Thorman says. “What we’re trying to do here is accelerate the learning.”

Informing Citizens

The final grant, worth $985,000, goes to TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), a global set of conferences that highlight “ideas worth spreading.”

The grant will amplify and measure the impact of ideas that emerge from the conferences and will help TED develop an online platform to enable people who are inspired by “TEDTalks” to take action.

“This is at the heart of what we’re trying to do in the Tech for Engagement initiative,” Mr. Thorman says. “Once people are informed, how do we get them motivated and provide them with the opportunity to really participate in the problem solving in their communities?”

Knight will also provide a two-year sponsorship for two TED fellows whose focus is the use of technology to improve civic life. The foundation will have a major exhibit at the weeklong annual TED conference that starts Monday in Long Beach, Calif.