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over 6 years ago

A Conversation with ST Mayer from Code for America

ST Mayer is the Chief Outcomes Officer at Code for America, a non-profit organization committed to elevating the public and private sectors through creative problem solving and the use of technology and design. She took some time to answer my questions and provide her thoughts on local government, civic technology, and the potential for tech use in the field of environmental health.

How long did you work in local government and what was your role?  

I worked at a local Health Department in California for 11 great years.  Over that time I held many different roles, but for the last few I was the Public Health Director and prior to that I was the Director of Policy and Planning.   It was my job to harness creative thinking to address some of our greatest health problems. Rarely, very rarely was technology a viable tool in my toolbox - it was too expensive, took too long to build and I didn’t know what was technically possible.

I worked in the heart of Silicon Valley and I knew very little about civic technology or the volunteers who hack data to give back to their governments.  I am pretty sure I am not the only Public Health Director who doesn’t know this incredible resource exists for them. 

What is your role now and what have you learned that you want App Challenge Applicants to keep in mind? 

I work at Code for America, a national nonprofit organization that believes government can work for the people, by the people in the 21st century.  We organize people committed to building technology that is simple, effective, and easy to use for everyone, furthering local governments goals of creating healthy, prosperous, and safe communities.   I am the Chief Outcomes Officer and oversee our work to build healthy communities. 

The main thing that I hope all app challenge applications will consider is that an app can be a website that works on a mobile device.

I can’t stress this point enough-- building a responsive website that is (i.e. correctly displays graphics and text on a variety of devices- desktop, mobile phone, tablet) can actually be a more sustainable project than an app. Typically, when we think of apps, we’re describing “native apps” - which are downloadable software applications. Because they run using code specific to the device, different versions must be created for each operating system - like Android or the Mac iOS. Making a responsive web page rather than a standalone app can actually be cheaper, reduces risk, and lets a tool scale more quickly. When think about the app’s audience- public and environmental health workers in government, these benefits are huge.

What are some of your favorite civic technology projects that are helpful to the environmental or public health fields?  

There are lots of great projects.  One good place to find a lot of these is at the Brigade project list. To highlight a few:

  • At a Chicago Brigade hack night, in collaboration with the Chicago Health Department, volunteers built the Flu Shot Finder website to show residents where and when they could get a flu shot nearby.
  • In the past, we also worked with the City and County of San Francisco, the City of New York, and Yelp to create a restaurant inspection data standard. This is a common way of reporting and sharing data so that restaurant inspection scores can be added to Yelp pages, which raises the profile of restaurant inspection results, and can help prevent foodborne illness outbreaks.
  • I also love Streetmix - it lets complete streets advocates  design their own safe and healthy streets and share these with local planners.
  • Finally, Balance is a way that SNAP recipients can check their food stamp balance with text messaging - a simple technology that most people have.  

I think these projects are fantastic because they all do similar things:

  • They take advantage of lightweight technologies. Sure, text messaging isn’t the most glamorous technology, but it thinks about who would be using the app, and what kinds of resources they have. According to the Pew Center, 79% of cell phone owners use text messaging on their cells.
  • They create feedback loops that collect data and provide it back to stakeholders in an easy to use format and quick timeframe that can help make better decisions. With Streetmix, you can easily share your street design with your local planner; with the Yelp Health Scores, you can instantly learn about a restaurant’s food safety, without having to navigate through spreadsheets on a Health Department website.
How could you see technology helping the EH/PH field, EH/PH organizations, or the communities that these fields serve? 

A lot of Public Health and Environmental Health work is about preventing something from happening.   Civic technology makes information and data available faster and in formats that are easier to use than paper reports - this means that ultimately fewer people get sick.  Many of our civil servants work in the field, mobile technology in particular provides opportunities for them to stay connected to their workplaces, to have up to date information and to report back information right from the field.  Building healthy communities requires engagement between government and its citizens- technology is a way that people expect to communicate and government needs tools to harness this.   My hope for this App Challenge is that applicants will build something that the people who do public health and environmental health work today need - something that fits right into their current workflow and improves their jobs and their ability to meet their mission. 


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