“Stuff that Matters” Design Challenge: 120 probation officers sharing one iPhone

I’ve spent many years encouraging the technology industry to work on stuff that matters . Not only do we need to tackle the big problems that face our society, but working on these problems pushes us to think harder, be more creative, and grow.

Every company should be focused on making a positive difference in the world , but sometimes that mission is more front and center than others. And some of the most promising opportunities for technologists to make a difference are in an unexpected place — in government.

I’ve had a great view of the challenges, opportunities, and rewards of working to improve government services by helping in the work of my wife, Jen Pahlka, founder and executive director of the non-profit Code for America, and former Deputy CTO of the United States. In her time at the White House, Jen was instrumental in setting up the United States Digital Service, a new group devoted to bringing technology best practices to the Federal government. Her recently published advice to the next President on what needs to be done to build better government digital services was, for me at least, a riveting read.

But there are, to my mind, even more exciting opportunities working at the local level, because it’s at that level that government most intersects with the lives of its citizens — the people who in tech-speak, we call “users.” And I’m writing this post because we’re currently recruiting the next class of Fellows at Code for America. Code for America Fellows are tech industry professionals (developers, designers, product managers, etc) who take time off from their regular careers to work on problems for local governments. These problems turn out to be pretty interesting.

Code for America is recruiting fellows for the 2017 fellowship program now through July 15th. The folks chosen next year will continue this kind of work: increasing access to opportunity for people with criminal records, helping survivors of crime get the support they need, and making it easier for small business to work with government.
Apply now.

I’d love to give you a sense of the kinds of challenges we face — and the kinds of creative solutions that are required — by telling you the story of the work of one of the Fellowship teams.

Reducing recidivism in Salt Lake County

This year, one team of Code for America fellows is partnered with Salt Lake County, UT. This team is building on interventions we tested in two previous fellowships: reducing churn in the food stamps program in San Francisco, and reducing “failures to appear” in the court system in Atlanta, both using text messaging. In Salt Lake, probation officers know the best way to keep their clients compliant with the terms of their probation is to check in with them often, remind them of their commitments, and help them with problems that arise. But until recently, text messaging had more or less not been an option: all 120 probation officers shared one iPhone in the office to communicate with clients !

Getting 120 individual iPhones for the caseworkers, or even letting them use their own personal phones, was not an option. But as we all know, in tech, there’s more than one way to solve a problem! The Salt Lake fellows built, among other things, Client Comm, an app that allows case managers to text with clients from their browsers. After only a few months, probation officers are using ClientComm to text hundreds of their clients on a daily basis, materially contributing to keeping clients in compliance. But it wasn’t as simple as creating an archivable messaging client, because working with the probation population isn’t simple.

A Design Challenge

The people this probation office serves do have access to cell phones. 95% of people arrested in Salt Lake County have a cell phone on them at the time of arrest, and they gain access again when they are released. The problem is that they have intermittent access and phone numbers that change frequently. This population frequently shares, trades, and borrows phones, often with other people also on probation. A text from a particular number may not be from the last person who used the phone! And since the record of SMS communication is a legal document, and can make a difference in whether someone returns to jail or not, getting the right text to the right probation officer and in the right client’s record is a big deal.

This is a design challenge worthy of tech’s brightest minds. Luckily Kuan Butts and Ben Peterson are on the case. Kuan and Ben have devised a system that triages texts based on history and direct inquiry, and directs messages to the right case manager. Automation and notification features allows for case managers to efficiently deliver individualized reminders about upcoming court dates, treatment appointments and more. The team is getting enthusiastic feedback from clients and case managers alike, and is working hard to determine if these interventions can demonstrate increased compliance and reduced recidivism by the end of the fellowship in November.

You Can Work on Stuff that Matters

Kuan Butts hails from MIT, Microsoft, Urban Launchpad, and Skyrise. Ben Peterson practiced experience design for Exygy, Tipping Point, and Johns Hopkins before coming to Code for America. Both of them are now spending the year going between CfA’s office in downtown San Francisco and the Criminal Justice Services office in Salt Lake City, learning what life is like for people on probation and the public servants charged with helping them. Others, like former Googler Meredith Hitchcock , are working in New Orleans, Seattle, Long Beach, New York, and Kansas City. Code for America fellows tell us every year that the experience is one of the most meaningful in their lives.

Code for America is recruiting fellows for the 2017 fellowship program now through July 15th. The folks chosen next year will continue this kind of work: increasing access to opportunity for people with criminal records, help survivors of crime get the support they need, and make it easier for small business to work with government. Apply now.