Editor’s Note: Watch Jennifer Pahlka’s full 30-minute profile this Sunday on CNN’s “The Next List” 2 P.M. ET. She’s the founder and executive director of Code for America in San Francisco. She lives in Oakland, California, with her daughter, Clementine, and their chickens.
Why you might know her: Her TED Talk has over half a million views for starters, and she is also founder of Code for America, which teams web developers, designers and entrepreneurs with local governments to help make cities more efficient and create positive change.
Quotable Pahlka: “We proudly use the word ‘geek.’ We call ourselves a Peace Corps for geeks… there’s just something about that word that most of us embrace.”
Why she matters: Pahlka has created a prestigious fellowship that pulls the smartest people from the tech world and has them work with local governments to make them more efficient. She believes that government should run as smoothly and as open as the Internet. A web site or app that might normally take a city several years to plan and millions of dollars to execute can be done by her fleet of geeks in just months at a fraction of the cost.
In her own words: “Code for America believes that we can make government work the way citizens want it to work in our daily and personal lives. What we need to do to get that to happen is to bring talented web developers, web designers and entrepreneurs together with innovators in city government and just reimagine a new government that works for cities.”
Something you might not know about Jen: She’s not a coder. She’s not a tech geek. She accidentally wound up in the tech industry running Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for O’Reilly Media. She didn’t even think she would like it. But she loved it – and mostly, she loved the people. In short, she loves geeks.
Code for America by the numbers: 26 fellows from the tech industry, chosen from 550 applicants; put into teams of 3 or 4; working with 8 cities nationally; 16 apps built this year being used in 13 cities; average age of a fellow: 28 years old.
How Pahlka rules the roost: She and her 9-year-old daughter Clementine raise chickens in her backyard in Oakland. “What I like about living here is that we also grow some of our own food and the chickens help with that,” she says. “In the future cities are going to be more sustainable that way so it’s part of what we’re trying to do with cities.”
Pahlka’s favorite chicken: Her name was Red (she died recently). Her current favorite chicken name is Lady Gaga. And she has a new one called Hillbilly. Clementine named her.
What city innovators think of Pahlka: “If you look at Code for America in the two years since it’s started, it’s tremendously changed the landscape in thinking… about government. In that sense the impact has already been significant. – Jay Nath, Chief Innovation Office, City of San Francisco
Thoughts on failure: “If you don’t tolerate any risk you can never innovate. Innovation requires experimentation. Experimentation requires occasional failures. So there’s so much that citizens can do to communicate to their elected officials and to the bureaucrats that they interact with, ‘You know what? We want you to try stuff.’ It’s more important that we try and fail that we stay with the status quo. And it’s really remarkable how much what we don’t like about government ‘we the people’ created. So if we created it, we can also fix it.”