Written by: Code for South Florida
Miami is the crossroads of the western hemisphere. Thanks to its central location and unique tropical ecosystem, the big city we all love has developed a world-wide reputation as a place for commerce, tourism, and culture. It is often rated as one of the best places in the country to start a new business, and its mythos as “The Magic City” attracts people from all over the world to live here, be it temporary or for the long haul.
However, even with its world-class reputation, Miami is not without its shortcomings. The city has the lowest rate of volunteers among 51 major cities in the United States. Although civic leaders and organizations are making great progress in this area through direct civic engagement, there was no civic organization solely advocating for better technology in the non-profit and government sectors.
Gregory Johnson and Livio A. Zanardo saw an opportunity for applying technology startup models to Miami’s public sphere. For them, the future was an organization designing, developing, and deploying technology to modernize public services that at the same time fostered an ecosystem of technologists and community partners for its work to have a lasting impact. After they inherited Code For Miami in late 2019, they merged with their sister organization in Fort Lauderdale, and founded the first technology-oriented non-profit in Miami, Code For South Florida.
Code For South Florida is an organization that designs technology services with the public interest in mind, leveraging a local network of technologists, designers, and problem solvers. To start they work with private and public institutions to access open datasets which helps them identify problems. They then focus on improving the way the general public interfaces with public and social services, and builds bridges with groups and organizations like non-profits and government agencies that can maximize the impact of these solutions.
Building Civic Technology is no small endeavor and implies much more than sitting behind a computer developing software. It requires extracting, transforming, loading and most cases cleaning up datasets to uncover ways to service the public in meaningful ways. It also involves connecting with agents directly on the frontlines of socioeconomic problems, collaborating with community leaders to reach a common definition of said problems, and designing solutions around public interest. Equip a unified community with cutting-edge tools specifically created to address social problems, and they can amplify civic engagement and improve service delivery in unprecedented ways.
The organization has worked on several public interest projects since its inception. One of the organization’s recent projects addresses evictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of the Community Justice Project, Code For South Florida volunteers built Eviction Protection, a platform that displays the status of evictions in counties across Florida. Users can input their location and get immediate information on evictions in their county. The tool stands to help both citizens and the organizations representing communities at-risk of unfair eviction practices (You can read more about Eviction Protection in this blog post).
Another recent project involves improving access to free tax filing assistance remotely. The organization observed the work of Code For America, which built a national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) solution titled Get Your Refund. Code For South Florida saw the opportunity to localize this initiative in our city by creating a coalition of VITA partners, including non-profits like Branches FL and Catalyst Miami, and public institutions like the City of Miami. The Get Your Refund initiative transformed VITA filing process from analog and in-person to digital and remote, reducing overhead for partners and improving access to tax resources for the public, all from the comfort of their personal devices (read more about Get Your Refund in this blog post).
Code For South Florida has also worked with the City of Miami to implement an affordable housing filing solution called GetHousing, in which users can look up affordable housing units for low-income renters. More recently, the organization also began installing air quality sensors around Miami with the aim of improving understanding of local air quality and advocate for better data governance principles in the region with the collected data.
These are only some examples of the organization’s recent work. The success of these public interest projects is based on transplanting software methodologies and product development strategies inspired by both the private sector and the open-source movement. Both private and open-source technologies made tremendous strides in the last decade thanks to the boom of startup culture in Silicon Valley. Code For South Florida is reframing those methods for the public interest. When people can accomplish anything out of their smart devices – hail rides to the next destination, order a full month’s supply of groceries, or run an entire business operation – there is no excuse for essential services like social support systems to get behind the times, as it happened with Florida’s Unemployment portal in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The future cannot wait for an invisible hand to err on the side of change while people rely on services that are supposed to work for them on paper but leave them stranded in practice. Code For South Florida strives to improve the status quo not by replacing the systems that already exist, but rather bolstering them by informing, educating, and building a local ecosystem of public interest technology, as displayed in the organization’s growing catalog of projects. Only proper representation of Civic Technology will bring public services up to speed with the digital age, and through a localized effort we can design unique solutions at scale that represent and address South Florida’s unique challenges in the 21st century and beyond.
No one is coming. It’s up to us South Floridians to acknowledge the past and build better future – and for that, there’s no time like the present.