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Have an idea for a clean energy app to make a clean energy improvement happen through a smartphone, the web, tablets, even desktop computers? Let me know ─ because it might just get done. There is rock star technical and design talent ready to “improve the relationships between citizens and government” in Massachusetts and throughout the country.

The approach seems heretical: get young “hackers” (the original connotation of the word is positive) “to work in the one environment that represents pretty much everything they’re supposed to hate . . . government.”

code for america logoThese quotes come from Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, a non-profit that “aims to improve the relationships between citizens and government . . . (it) engages citizens in building apps, knowledge hubs and workshops.” Her 12 minute TED presentation brings the concept to life.

A year ago, the folks running the CleanWeb Hackathon in Boston – an initiative sponsored in part by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center – asked me whether the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) had ideas for apps that would benefit the sector. I don’t think they expected any ideas from a state agency. DOER staff surprised them. Here’s a sample:

  • Alternative Fuel Vehicle Fuel/Charging Station Locator
  • Regionalized Vehicle Fleet Optimizer
  • Real-time Electricity Price Reporter
  • Net Metering Project Interconnection Status Checker

While the hack teams at that 30 hour CleanWeb event didn’t have the bandwidth to take on these particular apps, they might get traction via Code for America’s local partner, Code for Boston. Local Code for America chapters provide similar resources to hackathons, but on an ongoing basis.

I got in involved with Code for Boston because it struck me as way to bring a new dimension of innovation to Massachusetts’ clean energy sector. Code for Boston is already engaged with the City of Boston and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a progressive regional planning authority.

It’s not pie-in-the-sky. Some examples of apps developed through Code for America hacks already in use by the City of Boston:adopt-a-hydrant-logo

  • Adopt-a-hydrant allows citizens to claim responsibility for shoveling out fire hydrants after heavy snowfall.
  • The Daily Brief gives a snapshot of service requests in your city right now.
  • Solar Boston is an interactive map that provides information about energy usage in Boston to encourage adoption of solar energy.

    screen shot of solar boston

    Solar Boston

Typical Code for America hacks produce apps for citizens and businesses in days or weeks; sharp contrast to months or years for state-built software that will deploy on government servers, subject to the policies and rules that go with the territory.

Here’s where we need your help: Let us know what applications you think could remove barriers to and accelerate adoption of clean energy and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll see if we can help bring your ideas to life. It’s a great way to turn citizens’ personal interests and technology into an important force.

Even better, if you are one of those talented folks who can design or code, have some fun and get hacking with the passionate Code for America volunteers in your city. Meetups always have free pizza.

Written By:


Tom facilitates marketing and collaboration for DOER constituents, internal and external, including the state's 351 cities and towns. Prior to joining DOER, he worked as a senior marketing professional in high tech – especially software – companies. He also consulted to the U.S. Department of Energy on markets for alternative energy technologies. Tom's expertise applies Web 2.0 and social networking approaches to information technology that enable and accelerate stakeholder engagement, knowledge access and exchange. He graduated from Stanford's Graduate School of Business, where he also did coursework in aeronautical engineering and wrote for Business Week on solar energy. He earned his A.B degree from Harvard in Technology & Public Policy. Tom flies and instructs in gliders -- solar powered aircraft -- and is a jazz drummer.

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