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Code for Anchorage merges community and technology

By Hope Miller 12:28 PM December 18, 2014
ANCHORAGE –

On a slushy December night in Anchorage, a group of tech-oriented types gathered at The Boardroom downtown, a meeting spot for independent professionals and small companies.

Seated around a conference table, they munched on pizza and sipped from cans of beer as one by one, they rattled off a few facts about themselves and touched on projects they’re interested in or have worked on. Then, they broke off into smaller groups and the noise level escalated with excited chatter.

This is Code for Anchorage, a community-minded bunch looking to improve the municipality through technology accessible to the general public.

Sometimes they collaborate and sometimes they work alone, but projects members have done include a mapping application that tracks your location in Kincaid Park to a Twitter bot that churns out info on adoptable pets in the muni.

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Designed for smartphones, Find Yourself in Kincaid Park was released this month and can pinpoint your location in the 1,400-acre area. It provides information on the types of trails within the park and works even if you don’t have a cellphone signal, said developer Mike Brook. Users can also plant “flags” at specific points to remember a spot.

Brook, who moved to Anchorage with his wife from California about four months ago, found himself wanting to stay on familiar routes when at the park in an attempt to not get lost. He found he wasn’t the only one doing that.

“The more I’ve asked people, the more I’ve realized a lot of people were having the same experience I was having, which was that they’re almost overwhelmed by kind of the breadth of the park, and so what they’re doing is taking a conservative path around the park, taking all right-hand turns or something,” Brook said.

Other projects don’t require a smartphone. Based on an already existing project, Brendan Babb — co-captain of Code for Anchorage — set up an app in Alaska that retrieves people’s food stamp or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) balances. All a SNAP recipient has to do is send a text with their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card number and their balance is texted to them within one to two minutes.

“I like these apps because they don’t change the government side,” said Babb, who is a data scientist for the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. “It just calls the phone number, navigates the phone tree, types in the 16-digit number, listens to the robot reading your balance, transcribes it and then texts in back to you.”

It comes in English and Spanish, but Babb wants the app to be available in Tagalog and Yupik — the second-most commonly spoken language in Alaska. According to Mary Sullivan with the Food Bank of Alaska, about 91,000 Alaskans received SNAP benefits in the 2013 federal fiscal year.

The early December meeting was Meg Backus’ first appearance at Code for Anchorage, which is part of Code for America. She recently moved to the area from Chattanooga, Tenn., and works in the IT department at the Anchorage Public Library. Despite having only been in Anchorage for a few days, she came to the meet-up with ideas and a palpable desire to involve the community in technological advances.

“The future really needs to be built by everybody or it’s not going to work for everybody,” Backus said. “So, I really like some of these projects that are coming out of a group like this that cares about equality.”

Babb says that sentiment embodies the spirit of Code for Anchorage, which was founded in the summer of 2013.

“We’re kind of young, so we’re taking stuff from other cities and deploying it here [where it] makes sense, but ideally, you want to find out what your community wants,” said Babb, citing the Kincaid app as an example of a community-driven innovation.

Getting those ideas is easier when a diverse crowd weighs in, Babb says, adding that you don’t have to be tech-savvy to come to Code for Anchorage.

“I think everyone has at least five ideas on how they could make Anchorage a better city,” he said.

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