From creating cars that communicate with each other, to helping kids write their own books, to improvising medical devices worthy of MacGyver, these six innovators promise to change the way we live
Author TOM SAMILJAN
Municipalities may be struggling these days, but the news isn’t all bad, thanks to some conscientious technologists. Leading them is Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, a next-generation nonprofit that calls on the talents of Silicon Valley programmers and researchers to help solve the problems of America’s increasingly cash-strapped cities.
As a fresh-faced Yale graduate in the early ’90s, Pahlka moved to San Francisco to join a child welfare agency. “I thought I’d work in nonprofits all my life,” recalls the 41-year-old New York native, “but I found them overly structured and I wasn’t having an impact.” Being in the Bay Area, she jumped easily to the video game and technology industries, and ended up running the annual Game Developers Conference and the Web 2.0 Expo for more than a decade. But in 2010, the rise in social entrepreneurism and the obvious need for solutions to municipal budgetary woes convinced Pahlka to start Code for America.
Modeled after Teach for America, CfA gives 20 selected fellows $35,000 each to spend one year programming for the public good, specifically at the local level. “Cities are used to a very long and complicated process for technology,” says Pahlka. “We’re interested in looking at solutions that don’t take a year to develop.” Fellows create open-source apps that can be used by officials and citizens alike, and in more than one city. For example, an app designed to help Bostonians identify snow-covered manholes that need to be shoveled out was later implemented by Honolulu to make sure its tsunami sirens were in working order.
CfA’s fellows run the gamut from recent college grads to seasoned Apple employees, though recruiting the latter can be a challenge. “It’s hard to get tech pros to look at government jobs for the usual incentives,” says Pahlka. “But a year of service turns out to be a good way to give back.”
JENNIFER PAHLKA / AGE 41 / FROM BRONX, N.Y. / LIVES IN SAN FRANCISCO / PREVIOUS GIG GENERAL MANAGER & CO-CHAIR OF WEB 2.0 EXPO AT TECHWEB