Courtbot software aims to help break the cycle of high incarceration of women in Tulsa, Oklahoma

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Running Head: COURTBOT SOFTWARE
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Courtbot software aims to help break the cycle of high incarceration of women in Tulsa,
Oklahoma
Carlos A. Moreno
PSC-5073 - Municipal Management & Leadership
Professor Rodger Randle
August, 19, 2018
I certify that I have read A Student’s Guide to Academic Integrity at the University of
Oklahoma, and this paper is an original paper composed by me for this course. Except where
properly cited and attributed, it has not been copied or closely reworded from any other source
and has not been submitted as a whole, or in part, for credit in any other course at OU or any
other educational institution. It has not been created or submitted for any other purpose such as a
job assignment at my workplace or any other agency.
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Incarceration of Women in Oklahoma
In recent years, Oklahoma has been grappling with the rising rate at which women are
incarcerated. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2016), Oklahoma imprisons 151
of every ten thousand women (p. 9). Not only is this figure higher than any other state in the
nation, but if Oklahoma were its own country, it would have the highest female incarceration rate
of anywhere in the world. A team of journalists from the Center for Investigative Reporting
described that, “Oklahoma has the nation’s highest incarceration rate for women. The state’s rate
has doubled since 1990, and as of 2015, it was more than twice the national incarceration rate”
(Branstetter, Herrera, Rowan, & Sagara, 2017).
Dwindling state funding and a realization that “tough on crime” policies did not improve
public safety or drug addiction outcomes has increased political pressure on the state legislature
and the Governor of Oklahoma to take an earnest look at criminal justice reform, especially the
issue of incarceration of women. Former Oklahoma Representative Kris Steele realized, “...even
though we were spending more than we ever had on incarcerating more people than we ever had,
our crime rate had continued to increase” (Branstetter et al., 2017). During the 2016-2017 state
legislative session, state question 780 was passed, reducing many drug possession charges from a
felony to a misdemeanor. It is felt by the supporters of this policy that this will help alleviate
overincarceration, but the data that would support this impact has yet to be seen.
Nonetheless, more reform is needed, and more research and analysis is needed to
understand the public policies, local circumstances, and political factors that have led to
overincarceration. While state, county, and city governments sometimes seek to increase revenue
by imposing heavy fines and fees for low-level offenses, and/or jail individuals for failure to pay,
these strategies are often implemented without weighing the costs. The Brennan Center for
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Justice looked at these types of policies in fifteen states and found that for the most part, they are
poorly thought-out, they end up costing more money than they generate, and they fail to produce
the desired outcomes. As one example, the Brennan Center pointed out that in one North
Carolina county, officers “arrested 564 individuals and jailed 246 of them for failing to pay debt
and update address information, but…the amount it ultimately collected from this group was less
than what it spent on their incarceration” (Bannon, Nagrecha, & Diller, 2010, p. 2).
Oklahoma has very little publically available data upon which to discover the reasons for
overincarceration, but one investigative journalism team has sought to shed light on the issue by
uncovering much-needed information. Branstetter and her colleagues filed a public records
request with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) in January of 2016, and in July
of 2017, received a database containing state prison records for every offender in ODOC custody
within the 1990 to 2015 period. Analysis of these records led the journalists to publish a story
demonstrating that disproportionately high drug charges were at the heart of the high rate of
women in prison. “The most common reason women end up in prison: drug possession.
Oklahoma dealt out ever-longer sentences for these women, even as other conservative states
reduced drug sentences as part of criminal justice system overhauls” (Branstetter et al., 2017).
Women—especially women of color in rural counties—who were charged with drug offenses
received much harsher fines and jail sentences than their male counterparts. In several cases, a
woman in a committed relationship would claim responsibility—and take the punishment—for a
drug offense rather than the charge fall on her boyfriend or husband. A woman without a steady
job and a private attorney was more likely to receive more severe penalties than a woman of
means.
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There was one exception to the data Branstetter's team had uncovered: Tulsa County. In
Tulsa, the jail diversion program Women in Recovery was (and continues to be) responsible for
judges easing the harshness of sentences, with the promise from women offenders that they
complete the program and receive resources to help get treatment for their drug abuse.
Downward Spiral of Fee Collection in Tulsa
While drug and alcohol abuse still top the list of charges filed against offenders in Tulsa's
jail, the picture of incarceration in this city is somewhat different. One of the most significant
sources of Tulsa's jail overcrowding has to do with people incarcerated for their inability to pay
fines. In an in-depth data analysis of Tulsa County Sheriff's Office (TSCO) data, the New Yorkbased Vera Institute of Justice discovered that the Tulsa Police Department’s second most
frequent charge for jail bookings is the failure to pay court costs (Fishman, Silber, Reid, Roberts,
& Chaitoo, 2017, p. 24). This practice is outlined in detail by a study conducted by the Lobeck
Taylor Family Advocacy Clinic. An individual might receive a citation from a police officer for
a small infraction—not wearing a seatbelt, failure to signal during a turn, or disturbing the peace.
Failure to pay that fine on time results in an automatic warrant for that person's arrest. Upon
committing another offense, that person is jailed until they can plead their case to a judge unless
they can place bond. More often than not, “those who violate payment plans have a propensity to
acquire additional court costs and fines, compounding pre-existing payment troubles” (Cooper,
Fine, Harp, & Wilson, 2014), and thus a downward spiral is created.
Mounting fines and fees result in referral to collections companies and more jail time,
resulting in the offender losing their transportation, their job, even their family if they are serving
time in jail with no-one to care for their children. An article by the Harvard Civil Rights Review
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likens imprisonment for failure to pay fees to the establishment of, “debtors’ prisons,”
describing, “These practices are not applied equally: municipal fines are disproportionately
assessed against people of color and in predominantly minority communities” (Atkinson, 2016,
p. 202). This downward spiral of fines has become such a large problem for Tulsa, that the issue
has surfaced in the Equality Indicators Report created by the City of Tulsa (2018), which states
that, “When women are arrested and detained, even briefly, additional negative outcomes may
arise. They can miss work, become unable to care for their children, and then often rely on
assistance from friends, relatives and/or social services” (p. 25).
Breaking the cycle by decreasing failure to appear rates
The Vera Institute of Justice looked very methodically at this issue. Researchers spent a
year speaking with law enforcement officials at the city and county level, as well as professionals
in the municipal and county court system, lawyers, judges, elected officials, nonprofit service
providers, and community advocates. They mapped out the criminal justice process as it plays
out in Tulsa—from the point of arrest and booking to the point of conviction, sentencing, and
serving jail time—and they created a report containing 26 recommended policy and procedure
changes to help reduce jail overcrowding. These recommendations are grouped in to six
strategies: (1) Reducing jail admissions for lower-level crimes, (2) Reducing pretrial detention,
(3) Reducing the length of stay for both simple and complex cases, (4) Increasing the support for
jail diversion programs, (5) Reducing jail admissions for failure to pay fines, and (6) Increasing
accountability and transparency. In the first of these categories, the strategy emphasizes that
many individuals are booked in to the jail unnecessarily. In 2016, nearly half of people booked in
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to the jail were there either for a misdemeanor or municipal offense (such as failure to appear in
court or failure to pay a fine).
While the Vera report does not give a specific, “failure to appear” rate, the charge of
“Court Costs” gives a rough estimate of those who are booked in the jail for little reason other
than the inability to quickly pay a local fine or fee. Court Cost charges account for 1,163
admissions to the Tulsa County jail, the second most frequent charge. Municipal public
intoxication was the number one most frequent charge, accounting for 1,267 bookings in 2016
(Fishman, et. al, 2017, p. 24). Vera researchers describe that “In most of these cases, there is no
public safety priority necessitating their pretrial detention. They are there because there is no
alternative to jail admissions for these cases” (Fishman, et. al, 2017, p. 7). In the minds of judges
and prosecutors, the only way to ensure that someone who has failed to appear in court or failed
to pay a fee is to leave them in jail until their case can be heard. This reveals that one of the ways
that Tulsa can quickly and easily reduce its jail population would be to provide an alternative
waiting in jail simply to see a judge.
Courtbot reminds people of upcoming court dates
Atlanta, Georgia faced a similar challenge with unpaid fees and failures to appear in
court. In 2014, “40,000 people…missed their court date, resulting in a bench warrant, which
means you can be arrested for failing to appear. This means the next time a person runs a stop
sign, they could go to jail.” (Whitaker, 2017). Realizing that a large percentage of people were
missing their court date simply because they were unaware that not paying their fine and not
showing up for court meant that they would be issued a warrant, the Code for America
Fellowship that year worked on a technology solution that would remind people of their court
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date, and give them the option to pay their fine online via their cell phone. The simple software
application, dubbed, “Courtbot” reduced the time taken to pay court fees from five hours to five
minutes, and served 10,000 people in its first year of operation.
Courtbot works by sending and receiving text messages via a mobile phone. An
individual who has an upcoming court date sends their court case number to a locally designated
Courtbot phone number, and the service looks up their case from public court records, finds the
next upcoming court date, and sends a reminder to the person on the day before their court case.
The system is similar to text message reminders that one might subscribe to from their doctor,
gym, hair stylist, or retail store.
Courtbot is built using open source (freely available and distributable) web-based
technologies, and Twilio, a text-messaging development platform. The cost of running Courtbot
is quite minimal. Hosting the software costs less than $10 per month. The cost of sending text
messages on the Twilio platform is $1 per month, and $0.0075 per message. Thus a small
municipality that would want to implement a Courtbot system could do so on a budget of less
than $250 per year. This is quite advantageous, especially for small communities that do not
have their own text messaging systems or large Information Technology budgets.
Atlanta to Tulsa
Courtbot was featured at the 2014 Code for America Summit. Founded in 2009 by
Jennifer Phalka, Code for America (CfA) connects volunteer software designers and developers
in over 70 cities throughout the country, to work in their local communities toward the
improvement of government service delivery. CfA operates two programs: Brigades, which are
self-organized local volunteer groups, and one-year paid Fellowships, funded by their host cities
and by philanthropic organizations such as the Knight Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg
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Initiative. Speaking with a journalist during a visit to Oklahoma, Phalka remarked, “We’ve got to
stop saying that we don’t like what government is doing…We have the skills, the tech and data
skills, to make it work much better than it does today” (Dickerson, 2017). Phalka’s vision,
perpetuated by the leadership of the Brigades and Fellows programs, is that professionals can
leverage their skills and talents for the betterment of local governments—in much the same way
that Habitat for Humanity works in low-income areas to build housing, or the 4H Club empowers
young people to develop knowledge and skills in agriculture.
In early 2016, the CfA Brigade in Tulsa (Code for Tulsa) began working on creating a
copy of Courtbot, for implementation in Tulsa. Volunteers with Code for Anchorage assisted in
the effort, helping to identify the software’s component parts, and outline a plan of action for
implementation in other locations. The software needed to be modified so that it could be more
easily copied from one jurisdiction to another. Each local copy of Courtbot requires that the
software be able to look up court cases using the local public court information system, and that
users can use a local phone number to send and receive text messages.
While Code for Tulsa received technological assistance from Anchorage, the team also
needed local help in order to understand how to access court information from the Oklahoma
Supreme Court Network (OSCN). For that expertise, the team relied on an attorney, Jill Webb, at
the Tulsa County Public Defender’s office. Courtbot Tulsa launched in March 2017. Local
television journalist Annie Chang (2017) reported that, “The app is meant to keep those
offenders out of jail by keeping them updated, sending them text reminders of when to show up
in court.”
Later that year, Code for Tulsa demonstrated the software’s functionality to Tulsa County
Division of Court Services Director Sherri Carrier. The Court Services office administers several
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pretrial release programs, providing alternatives to holding nonviolent offenders in jail to await
their court date. Carrier, and the Public Defender’s office have since helped to get individuals
using Courtbot, and have provided feedback to Code for Tulsa on improvements and added
features. In August of 2017, Courtbot was mentioned in the Vera Institute report as part of a
recommended strategy to, “Reduce failure to appears (FTAs) by instituting a court notification
system in the municipal and district courts...” (Fishman, et. al, 2017, p. 28).
Next Steps for Courtbot
Since the launch of Courtbot in the Spring of 2017, the software application has received
a significant amount of praise. Code for Tulsa was invited to speak at the 2018 national Code for
America Summit, to demonstrate the redeployment of the service in to its own community, as
well as the group’s re-writing of some of Courtbot’s basic components in order for it to be more
easily copied and deployed by more cities. The magazine Atlantic Monthly, addressing some of
the negative impacts of technology in the public sector, pointed to Courtbot as one bright spot,
mentioning that “Here in 2018, it’s possible that you’ve noticed that tech did not save
government. But some parents who have been accused of crimes in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are now
spending the night at home with their kids instead of in jail” (Madrigal, 2018).
Data, Journalism, and Civic Technology
After the Center for Investigative Reporting published their article which used the
Oklahoma Department of Corrections dataset, the journalists reached out to Code for Tulsa to
collaborate on making the dataset easier to use, in order to shed more light on questions and
problems in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. The team felt that with better access to the data,
other journalists and policy organizations could shed more light on Oklahoma’s criminal justice
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policy challenges. “Branstetter, however, quickly recognized that most news organizations don’t
have data teams or the capacity to work with such a large dataset, so she tweeted at Code for
Tulsa to help make the data more accessible. Her tweet was the impetus for the day-long
hackathon and design session” (Kim, 2017). The two organizations collaborated on a community
event in December of 2017, and brought together not only journalists and technology
professionals, but nonprofits working in the criminal justice sector as well as women who
themselves have been negatively impacted by harsh incarceration policies. This collaboration
was rather unique in the types of stakeholders brought together. Code for Tulsa will continue the
community dialogue with a follow-up, “Criminal Justice Summit” in August of 2018, for the
purposes of determining what issues in the criminal justice system need more data and
technology resources.
Measuring Impact
One important next step in Courtbot’s evolution is to quantitatively measure its impact.
The Vera Institute of Justice recommended: “Although this program is not run by the district
court, it is useful to measure and track the results to demonstrate how reminder systems work
and to expand it” (Fishman, et. al, 2017, p. 29). To this end, Courtbot reached out to the newlyformed Open Justice Oklahoma (OJO) project, an initiative under the Tulsa-based Oklahoma
Policy Institute. OJO will be helping Code for Tulsa take a closer look at failure to appear rates,
and measure how those who are sent messages via Courtbot show up to their court hearings.
There is very little in the way of academic study or research-based analysis of how textmessaging based court reminder systems improve failure to appear rates. In analysis of
California’s pretrial detention system, Human Rights Watch discovered that, “Other pretrial
services, like reminder calls, are proven to reduce missed court dates without incurring the costs
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of locking people in jail” Fellner & Raphling, 2017, p. 7). The behavioral insights group Ideas42
conducted a randomized controlled trial study in New York, showing that, “Relative to receiving
no text message, we find a 32% reduction in open warrants for people who received a
combination message set and a post-FTA message” (Cooke, et al., 2018, p. 16). Thus a new
study in Oklahoma may prove to be quite valuable.
Courtbot throughout Oklahoma
Another step forward for Courtbot is to provide the service in more counties throughout
Oklahoma. As of this writing, Rogers County and Muskogee County have implemented Courtbot
in their jurisdictions. The Code for Muskogee Brigade is working toward the ambitious goal of
launching the service in all 77 Oklahoma Counties, and has created the website: okcourtbot.com.
The effort will help spread the concept of civic technology to local governments. The nonprofit
think tank NextCity invites policymakers to “Start thinking differently about what technology
can do in the public’s service, and other people will catch the idea” (Scola, 2013). Criminal
justice efforts may potentially benefit greatly from civic technology efforts in Oklahoma.
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References
Atkinson, T. (2016). A Fine Scheme: How Municipal Fines Become Crushing Debt in the
Shadow of the New Debtors’ Prisons. Harvard Civil Rights—Civil Liberties Law
Review, 51(1) p. 189-238.
Bannon, A., Nagrecha, M., & Diller, R. (2010). Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry.
Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Retrieved from:
https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/criminal-justice-debt-barrier-reentry
(The Brennan Center for Justice was founded in 1995 by law clerks of Supreme Court
Justice William J. Brennan. Alicia Bannon is a John J. Gibbons Fellow in Public Interest
and Constitutional Law at Gibbons P.C.(a prestigious New York legal firm). Previously,
Ms. Bannon clerked for Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
Second Circuit.)
Branstetter, Z., Herrera, A., Rowan, H., & Sagara, E. (2017, Sept. 20). Let down and locked up:
Why Oklahoma’s female incarceration is so high. The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Retrieved from: https://www.revealnews.org/article/let-down-and-locked-up-whyoklahomas-female-incarceration-is-so-high/
(The Center for Investigative Reporting was founded in 1977, in the San Francisco Bay
Area. The center holds Emmy, Peabody, and Edward R. Murrow Awards for
investigative reporting. Ziva Branstetter is the Senior Editor of Reveal News and a 2015
Pulitzer Prize in local reporting finalist. Previous to Reveal, Branstetter was the first
editor in chief of The Frontier, an investigative newsroom based in Tulsa, OK.)
Chang, A. (2017, March 31). 'CourtBot' App Launches To Help Tulsans Avoid Failure-ToAppear Fines. News On 6. Retrieved from:
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http://www.newson6.com/story/35046174/courtbot-app-launches-to-help-tulsans-avoidfailure-to-appear-fines
City of Tulsa. (2018) Tulsa Equality Indicators. Community Service Council. Retrieved from:
https://www.tulsaei.org/
Cooke, B., Diop, B.Z., Fishbane, A., Hayes, J., Ouss, A., & Shah, A. (2018, Jan.). Using
Behavioral Science to Improve Criminal Justice Outcomes: Preventing Failures to
Appear in Court. ideas42. Retrieved from: http://www.ideas42.org/blog/project/nypdsummons-redesign/
(Founded by Harvard academics in 2008, ideas42 has offices in New York, Boston,
Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The organization employs behavioral science
study and methodologies to devise solutions to societal problems. Brice Cook is a
Research Manager, studying Crime and Education, at UrbanLabs at the University of
Chicago.)
Cooper, Q., Fine, L., Harp, S., & Wilson, C. (2014). Assessing the Cost: Criminal Fines, Court
Costs, and Procedure vs. Practice in Tulsa County. Lobeck Taylor Family Advocacy
Clinic at The University of Tulsa College of Law. Retrieved from:
https://law.utulsa.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/.../Final-Report-Assessing-the-Cost.pdf
(Founded in 1997 by Bill Lobeck and former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor, the Lobeck
Taylor Family Foundation focuses on entrepreneurship, innovation and economic
opportunity projects. The foundation is currently led by Taylor’s daughter, CEO
Elizabeth Frame Ellison. The Lobeck Taylor Family Advocacy Clinic is an intensive,
one-semester course at the University of Tulsa College of Law.)
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Dickerson, B. (2017, July 24). Code for America brigades in Oklahoma promote good
government. Oklahoma City Free Press. Retrieved from: https://freepressokc.com/codeamerica-brigades-okla-good-gov/
(Oklahoma City Free Press is an online independent newspaper, written and edited by
Oklahoma City journalist Brett Dickerson. Prior to founding Free Press in 2016,
Dickerson was an independent writer for Red Dirt Report, Oklahoma Gazette, 405
Magazine and Territory magazine.)
Fellner, J. & Raphling, J. (2017) Not in it for Justice: How California’s Pretrial Detention and
Bail System Unfairly Punishes Poor People. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from:
https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/04/11/not-it-justice/how-californias-pretrial-detentionand-bail-system-unfairly
(Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights
organization made up of roughly 400 staff members around the globe. Each year, Human
Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions.
John Raphling is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, investigating and writing
about criminal justice in the U.S. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, he spent twenty
years as a trial lawyer.)
Fishman, N., Silber, R., Reid, K., Roberts, S., & Chaitoo, N. (2017, August). Report to Tulsa
County Stakeholders on Jail Reduction Strategies. Vera Institute of Justice. Retrieved
from: https://www.vera.org/publications/report-to-tulsa-county-stakeholders-jailreduction-strategies
(The Vera Institute of Justice was founded in New York in 1961 by philanthropist Louis
Schweitzer and magazine editor Herb Sturz, who’s work in exposing the injustice of the
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bail system in New York City that locked people up simply for being poor became
known as the Manhattan Bail Project. Since this time, the Institute has worked to improve
justice systems through nearly 60 projects in 47 states. Nancy Fishman supervises Vera’s
work on bail reform and reducing the overuse of jail incarceration.)
Kim, C. (2017, Dec. 18). Journalists, coders collaborate in Oklahoma prison data hackathon.
The Center for Investigative Reporting. Retrieved from:
https://www.revealnews.org/press/journalists-coders-and-community-groups-collaborateto-address-oklahoma-female-incarceration/
(See the description for the Center for Investigative Reporting, above. Cristina Kim is the
collaborations and engagement manager at Reveal from The Center for Investigative
Reporting. Kim holds a Masters in American Studies from Brown University and
Columbia University and a Bachelors in Latin American & Latino Studies from UC
Santa Cruz.)
Madrigal, A. C. (2018, June 25). Civic Tech in a Time of Technopessimism. The Atlantic.
Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/06/civic-tech-in-atime-of-technopessimism/563696/
Scola, N. (2013, July 8). How Code for America Is Changing the Way Cities Run. Nextcity.
Retrieved from: https://nextcity.org/features/view/What-Code-for-America-Does-InCities-Civic-Tech
(Next City is a nonprofit online magazine, focused on innovative and progressive ideas in
urban cities. The publication was founded in 2003 and is based in Philadelphia. Nancy
Scola is currently the senior technology reporter at Politico. Previous to Politico, Scola
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was a staff writer covering technology policy for The Washington Post, was a tech and
politics correspondent for The Atlantic, and a contributing writer at Next City.)
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2016,
Dec.). Bulletin: Prisoners in 2015. Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. NCJ 250229. Retrieved
from: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4053778-BJSReport.html#document/p9/a376229
Whitaker, C. (2017). People in Tulsa can now check the status of traffic citations on their phones
thanks to Code for Tulsa. Code for America. Retrieved from:
https://www.codeforamerica.org/featured-stories/people-in-tulsa-can-now-check-thestatus-of-traffic-citations-on-their-phones-thanks-to-code-for-tulsa
(Code for America was founded in 2009 and is based Oakland, California. The
nonpartisan nonprofit focuses on the improvement of government services through the
use of open source technology. Christopher Whitaker serves as the Brigade Program
Manager for Code for America. Whitaker holds a Masters of Public Administration from
DePaul University. Previously, Whitaker served with the U.S. Army in Iraq.)
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