OpenOakland 1.5: A year and a half in review

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)
Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

As we close out the year, I wanted to reflect on a few things to put our work in perspective and also to lay out the vision for where we want to go in the new year. 2013 was a great year for civic innovation in Oakland. It was a great year for the growing movement to open up government and to build towards a future where our local government is truly by the people, for the people and of the people in the 21st century. But we still have much to do and much to learn. I’m excited about both of those realities.

OpenOakland was created to fulfill two main goals – to provide a backbone level of support for civic innovation in Oakland, and to support our local government in being more open, more agile and more engaged. Both Eddie Tejeda and I believe that the approach taken by Code for America is perhaps the strongest, smartest way to achieve truly open government in the USA, and we’re proud to be part of a national movement to transform how government works and is how we as citizens and residents interact with government.

We believe that leadership is best done through supporting others to change, by providing a vision of what could be and by helping others move along that path. OpenOakland was our idea to make that vision a reality and so far hundreds of people across Oakland have been inspired to be part of that journey too – we all want our government to be great- we want to have a positive, trusting relationship with our city hall and the people working inside. It seems that our approach is yielding fruit in a very small period of time.

We are often perceived as simply technologists who are interested in the technical solution. While many of our members are technically gifted, we are not about the technology – the advantage that technologists offer however is the ability to know what is possible. Take this year’s acclaimed app built by Adam Stiles and Shawn McDougal with support from the city’s Budget Advisory Committee and others: OpenBudgetOakland.org.

This app demonstrates so much of what we’re building.

Conceived at a hackathon, we offered to help incubate and support the completion of this game changing app. It required the city to release the raw budget in a raw data format for the first time ever – a serious change in attitude from a city hall frequently seen as closed and uncooperative. In releasing this data, the city enabled the development of an incredibly powerful application that would never have been conceived of nor built in city hall. Our team has learned a lot through the launch of this app and has been largely responsible for the increased focus on the city’s budgeting process and the push for increased transparency and engagement in future budget preparation. We’ve helped to change city policy, empower people to ask informed questions and enriched the discussion with trustworthy information.

And we’ve helped open the budget data for the first time.

This is what we’re about – technology to change behaviors and to create new possibilities.

In June we participated in a national event called the National Day of Civic Hacking, co-sponsored by the White House. While other cities were hacking on new apps, we knew there was an opportunity to do something different in Oakland. An app and an idea struck us as being perfectly suited to Oakland- something called Honolulu Answers. It was built by a Code for America team and it consisted of an app and an approach. This app was, like all of our work, open source. That means anyone in the world can take the raw code and reuse it however they like. Likewise, the team shared their method to build it.

In Oakland, we held an event called ReWrite Oakland – while a geeky play on words, we wanted to build this new web app for our city and we invited the city to participate in building it. Seventy people joined us at the HUB Oakland to create a new resource for all of our city: Answers.Oaklandnet.com was the result.

What we did was more than just build a new web app in collaboration with the city – we showed that how the city acquires and considers technology can be different, better, smarter. An open source app and a ton of residents time created a website far more accessible to regular people than the city’s current site. We will be holding ReWrite evenings across the city in 2014, giving more Oaklanders the chance to help build something together.

As this article gets published, we’ll also be launching a new app built with a city project in mind. AdoptaDrainOakland.com was a suggestion form the city’s environmental services team – they saw the success of the Adopta apps used in other cities and asked us to help bring that app to Oakland. The result is another open source website that helps Oaklanders contribute in a small but meaningful way to their city. If we can help to clear out blocked drains when it floods, our public works crews can stay focused on fixing all those potholes we love to hate.

We’ve also been hard at work on building an app that breaks down the old barriers between city council and the public- the dreaded Council agenda PDF nightmare. Led by Miguel Vargas, this app allows regular people to easily find information about discussions and topics hitting council and other meetings in the city. It will allow people for the first time to stay on top of matters that relate to them, without the painful process of digging through dozens of lengthy PDF documents. Our hope is that this makes our council more open and with solid outreach on our part, changes the way people choose to be passive consumers or engaged citizens.

With our community we’ve also built some simple apps, based on other great open source projects in other cities, that help residents find services and connect to their local networks:
EarlyOakland.com helps parents find free early childhood education and care. OaklandBeats.com lets easily people find their local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council.

We also continue to provide technical support for the amazing OaklandWiki.org project – your very own wiki for the town! One of our first projects, this has spun off into a dynamic community and is a great resource to share what you know about your city.

Late this year we also participated in the first ever crowdsourced legislation in the City of Oakland. Lauded by the Sunlight Foundation as a promising practice for other cities to follow, we joined dozens of people from across the city and the country to help form the strongest possible new language for the city’s open data resolution, which passed the city council with no dissension. This new resolution requires our city to develop a comprehensive plan to build out the open data efforts across all departments.

Providing a strong sustaining force to the efforts underway already (which we successfully pushed for in 2012 also), this will set our city on a strong path for the future where researchers, developers, analysts and even city staff have simple, legal access to the valuable data the city produces already. We see this as an important factor in changing the status quo regarding staff and electeds attitudes towards transparency- when the expectations for city information becomes “open by default”, our leaders will be operating on a very different platform than in the past.

As with our Open Government Pledge in 2012, we will once again be taking up the challenge to convince our next round of city leaders to support the concept of open government. We aim to hold a mayoral candidates forum focused on issues of technology, transparency, engagement and procurement.

Clearly what we’re doing is geeky and optimistic. We think this work matters to the entire city, and we’ll be making a lot of effort to connect with organizations and people across this great city in 2014. While our focus has been on building relationships with and changing how things are done inside city hall, we almost forgot that “by the people” is bigger than just those who take the time to join us in city hall for our hack nights and other events.

When we formed, we established values of engagement with our city and diversity in our membership and leaders. 2014 presents us with the chance to engage more widely and to share this vision with those who want to participate.  While the technology sector is often an exclusive space, we will be putting in hard work to create a truly inclusive movement in Oakland.

Although not the work of OpenOakland itself, it would be remiss to not mention the powerful new public records system that our Code for America fellowship team built. Available now at records.oaklandnet.com, this system provides both a streamlined way for the city to manage and respond to public records requests, it also provides the public with an incredible view into what is being requested. Again this demonstrates how we think – interfaces to government should be designed for the users, should be beautiful and easy to use, should serve the business needs of city staff and should provide an open view for the public.

What has this cost? The simple answer is that all this has been accomplished by an organization with no budget (besides the pizza fund Code for America provides – and that is important) and no staff. Our work has been produced by people with a desire to see our city become stronger, smarter and more open. As leaders of this group, we’ve tried to support as many people as possible in doing things that brings innovation to city hall and creates more beautiful, accessible ways for people to interact and engage with our government. Our events have relied on generous sponsors, but other than their support, OpenOakland to date represents what is possible when people who love their city get together, collaborate and innovate for the good of all.

We need to trust in government again, we need to respect public service, we need a government that is open and serves all people equitably and justly. We also need our government to be able to innovate, to take measured risks and to provide better ways for residents to interact with officials and elected members. This is what we’re about.

We’re excited about what 2014 has in store, and we welcome your feedback on our efforts as well as your partnership to make this vision a reality.

About Steve Spiker

Steve (Spike) Spiker is co-founder of OpenOakland the Director of Research & Technology with Urban Strategies Council, a social impact nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif. He speaks nationally on data driven decision making in public policy, community development and applied social research. Spike serves on the executive committee of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and has successfully advocated for open data policies in Oakland and Alameda County. He manages the development of open source technology, spatial analysis projects and mapping systems. He became a US citizen last year! He was part of the Next American City’s Vanguard class of 2012 and was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change in 2013.

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