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Team to devise Web-based ways to help revitalize Las Vegas economy

The Code for America team headed back to the nonprofit’s San Francisco headquarters after spending February meeting with city of Las Vegas officials as part of an 11-month program.

Code for America began in 2009 to help governments work better through increased access to data, a greater Web presence and innovative Web-based applications, among other things.

Las Vegas joins a list of cities that includes New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The program requires a public and private partnership between a city government and a business or other private sector entity at the cost of $360,000 split evenly.

The city paired with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, a privately funded $350 million venture aimed at reviving downtown Las Vegas through investment in startup businesses, technology, the arts, culture and education. The Downtown Project and the city paid $180,000 apiece. The city’s half came out of the general fund.

“(The Downtown Project) has been a great help,” city spokesman David Riggleman said. “We’ll bring the city’s perspective. They’ll hear what we need and hear from the community, what their needs are.”

The three-member team is Lindsay Ballant, a graphic designer from New York City; Ryan Closner, a software developer from Portland, Ore.; and Lou Huang, an urban designer from San Francisco. They will spend the next 10 months in San Francisco developing programs, apps, websites or anything else they think might help Las Vegas revitalize its economy.

“We try not to come in with preconceived notions of the problem or the solution,” Closner said. “We’re trying to figure out where the biggest problems are and what solutions will have the biggest impact.”

The teams also occasionally create smaller side projects. The Boston team in 2011 created the mobile apps Adopt-A-Hydrant, which allows residents and local business to take responsibility for clearing snow or debris from fire hydrants; and Where’s My School Bus?, allowing parents to track their children’s school bus from their cellphones.

The teams also devise more impactive projects, such as blightstatus.org, which helps New Orleans residents determine where a specific property is in the city’s blight abatement process, according to Code for America’s website.

“The magic of CFA is how it approaches working with city governments,” said Zach Ware, who heads the Downtown Project. “The fellows get to know the city’s technical and human architecture, then return to work together with fellows who have done the same in other cities. The lessons learned from all of their experiences collectively is extremely powerful.”

Riggleman said he is not expecting them to “change the world” with their plan. The city is hoping for an effective, innovative way of addressing the needs of the community, he said.

“They have the expertise and knowledge to bring us further into the 21st century, not with rocket science but just a great idea,” he said.

The team’s plan is expected to be implemented in December, according to Riggleman. “It depends on what they come back with,” he said. “We don’t think they’ll come back with anything that will break the bank. That hasn’t been their track record.”

As far as the Downtown Project is concerned, Ware said he hopes the partnership will create more opportunities for “creative thinkers to do cool things.”

“CFA has a way of surprising people with their results,” he said. “We’ve already been inspired by events like the VegasHack hackathon, which focused on city-centric tools. We hope that type of culture is accelerated by CFA’s work to further make the city’s tech systems open and approachable for developers.”

Through complete immersion — the team of three lived in one of Hsieh’s Ogden high-rise “crash pads” — members said they have grown a soft spot in their heart for the city.

“When people talk about just the Strip now, I get irrationally offended,” Closner said with a laugh. “There’s more to it.”

Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter Nolan Lister at nlister@viewnews.com or 702-383-0492.

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