In the winter of 2011, a handful of software engineers landed in Boston just ahead of a crippling snowstorm. They were there as part of Code for America, a program that places idealistic young coders and designers in city halls across the country for a year. They’d planned to spend it building a new website for Boston’s public schools, but within days of their arrival, the city all but shut down and the coders were stuck fielding calls in the city’s snow emergency center.In such snowstorms, firefighters can waste precious minutes finding and digging out hydrants. A city employee told the CFA team that the planning department had a list of street addresses for Boston’s 13,000 hydrants. “We figured, ‘Surely someone on the block with a shovel would volunteer if they knew where to look,'” says Erik Michaels-Ober, one of the CFA coders. So they got out their laptops.Screenshot from Adopt-a-Hydrant Code for AmericaNow, Boston has adoptahydrant.org, a simple website that lets residents “adopt” hydrants across the city. The site displays a map of little hydrant icons. Green ones have been claimed by someone willing to dig them out after a storm, red ones are still available—500 hydrants were adopted last winter.Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, but consider what the city pays to keep it running: $9 a month in hosting costs. “I figured that even if it only led to a few fire hydrants being shoveled out, that could be the difference between life or death in a fire, so it was worth doing,” Michaels-Ober says. And because the CFA team open-sourced the code, meaning they made it freely available for anyone to copy and modify, other cities can adapt it for practically pennies. It has been deployed in Providence, Anchorage, and Chicago. A Honolulu city employee heard about Adopt-a-Hydrant after cutbacks slashed his budget, and now Honolulu has Adopt-a-Siren, where volunteers can sign up to check for dead batteries in tsunami sirens across the city.
“We teach our kids how to be consumers of technology, not creators of technology.”