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Volunteer Programmers Code for BTV

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Although it takes human hands to pick up the bottles, cans, and paper along the roads, rivers, and fields across Vermont, a new Green Up Vermont software app created by the loose-knit, volunteer programming group—Code for BTV—now makes it easier to coordinate those hands across the state.

Code for BTV, which was launched in 2013, is one of 85 local “brigades” of the 10-year-old national organization, Code for America.

BTV “co-captains” Nick Floersch and James Lockridge said the group brings together experienced programmers who want to use their skills on more fulfilling projects than their day jobs; neophyte programmers seeking real-world projects to hone their skills; and non-programmers, such as project managers and artists, who can guide the projects and make the apps more useful, easy to use, and attractive.

The coders meet every other Tuesday evening at the business incubator Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington, with a Google Hangout option for those who want to connect virtually. “We spend the first half-hour socializing and eating pizza,” Floersch said. “After that, we break out to the various project teams.” In between meetings, the collaboration continues online.

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Although the organization meets in Burlington and is called Code for BTV, Floersch said almost all the leadership team members live outside the Queen City, and their projects have been aimed at users throughout the state.

Floersch, who joined Code for BTV as a programmer when the organization began, said the GreenUp app was the group’s first project. The app allows volunteers to mark the routes they are cleaning up, so other volunteers don’t duplicate their efforts. Volunteers can also mark on a map where they left a bag of trash, so town coordinators know where to send the crew picking up the bags. Floersch and his fellow coders are working on version 3, to be used for the 50th anniversary of Green Up Day in May 2020.

Green Up Vermont director Kate Alberghini, who started in the position in October, has met with the Code for BTV app developers a couple of times and sees other potential tie-ins. Community College of Vermont is also celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020, she noted.

“They are very interested in using the app to show, across the state, all the CCV teammates who are going to come out,” she said. “What others will see when they use the app is that CCV has a very large presence on Green Up Day with volunteers. They can also pit teams from the various CCV campuses against each other, to get more volunteers out there.”

The Green Up app is yet one more example of Code for BTV’s mission, which is to build better tech tools for organizations such as Green Up Vermont, local governments, and other organizations using government data, according to the belief that “government should work effectively for all Americans, with respect and dignity.” As for Code’s politics, it declares itself to be “non-partisan, but not neutral.”

Government data is key to Code for BTV’s work for Vermont Legal Aid to help people expunge criminal convictions, removing any official record of them. Since Vermont’s legalization of marijuana, local prosecutors have been holding expungement clinics, where people come for help from lawyers to expunge past marijuana possession convictions. Vermont Legal Aid asked the coders to develop tools to make the process less time-consuming, and they did.

It still takes an attorney to walk a convicted cannabis possessor through the expungement process, but Floersch said the average time per person has dropped from 90 minutes to 30 minutes; lawyers can help three times as many people in the same time period. A project contact person at Vermont Legal Aid did not respond to requests to comment.

Efficiency is not the only goal for Code for BTV. Floersch, who works with GIS and other software at the Montpelier-based environmental consulting firm Stone Environmental, said the group collaborates with artists to beautify the screens through which computer users interact. Tax software exemplifies ugly, utilitarian software, Floersch said. “They designed it so you have to look at every single checkbox. It’s hard to look at. And that’s for something that’s designed to bring in revenue. What can you expect from software for food stamps?”

The list of actual and potential projects for Code for BTV is long, Floersch said. They’re working with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity to develop tools for financial literacy training in the Reach Up program for low-income Vermonters. Also, can rental data be organized online so tenants see the quality of a place they’re considering renting?

Technology can even draw young people into venerable Vermont activities. Alberghini touted the GreenUp app’s potential for this. Asked whether she thought it would increase the number of volunteers in 2020, she demurred. “It’s too early to tell,” she said.

For more information visit codeforbtv.org