Woman | Shame | Perfection

This has been a big few weeks for the idea of feminism, respect, and equality for women and amid the horror and furor of events, I confess one thing just shook me.  If I’m honest, it’s stuck with me like very little else in life has. One piece of writing featured on a bold podcast on sexism in the church in America has done me in, I find myself broken again each day over this, more tears than I’ve ever known aside from personal loss- a story that reaches deep inside and unravels much of the sexist shit I’ve carried, even as a man who has been somewhat sensitive to sexism for many years, as a man who’s  consciously built a team that includes women and is safe for women, make that two teams. Despite this, one piece of writing has challenged so much for me, and it’s shaken me up in ways that make me more empathetic than ever, its no longer just “injustice”, its real women, real pain, real harassment, abuse, and shame, and no, its not ok, not with me, not with my faith, not with my family. The more I talk about this and the more this becomes a public discussion we can have, the more we all realize that almost all women have stories they are ashamed or afraid of, and men have to start getting this, not denying, not excusing, not deflecting.

Enough of my fumbling. Below is Lisa’s piece in it’s entirety, I’ve been posting snippets all week on the facebook, here it all fits together. Again, trigger warnings for female readers. For men, take pause for a second before you read it all.

(Thank you so much Mike, Michael, Lisa and everyone else on the truly wonderful episode of the Liturgists, a fantastic podcast, check em out here.)

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First moments, the merging of two cells into one, multiplying—two, four, six, eight—rapidly growing and forming the information that will decide my hair, eyes, teeth, hands, my genetic DNA. Everything I needed to become a human and still I am invisible to the naked eye. I am grown from my Mother’s own body, my blood from her blood, my heartbeat from her choice; making her belly swell and her hormones go crazy with rage and want for whip-cream filled donuts at 4am.

My body grows and she puts her hand upon her belly to feel a foot kick her side, the jerk of hiccups, the round of my head. She is proud, proud of her body that is a force, source of life to mine.

I grow. Her body tells her it is time; I come into the world with pain and euphoria as she breaks her beautiful body to give me life. She sees me for the first time, what she has made, and it is good. The intricacies of the human body is something staggering – veins, heart, lungs, synapses, toenails, chemicals, eyelashes, all good and beautiful. She holds my body and breathes in.

I grow. From a baby to a toddler, toddler to little girl. I am four and I can run around with my shirt off and feel the fullness of the wind.  I can paint my belly and take baths with my friends, slap my butt and laugh. We sleep under stars and run through sprinklers naked and wild. We are silly and think our bodies are strange and wonderful.

I grow and I am six. I am taught what I can and cannot do with my body; can no longer take my shirt off outside on my front porch, no longer run around naked with my friends outside with paint on our bellies because the man across the street stares so my Mother takes me inside and tells me I am now the age where I need to be careful. A feeling comes I never knew before, I learn later the word for it is this – shame. We are at our friend’s house and the teenage boy keeps making me sit on his lap; I don’t understand it. We are all sitting in a circle, about ten of us, and no one notices. I am confused and try to get away from him, but he holds me there and moves his hands in a way I don’t understand. I feel I should obey because he is a strong older boy and I a small girl inherently weaker than he. I get mad that my body is not stronger, that I cannot break free. I feel it is my fault, maybe I should not have worn shorts so my legs were covered. And then there was the church leader, my friend’s father, who insisted he put lotion on my legs after our bath. I didn’t want him to, but he made me obey, because he was a man, and I, young and born the lesser of the sexes. It is uncomfortable and I thought he must not know what he is doing, a respectable man, let alone a church leader wouldn’t do this…but now I am older and know better, yes, he knew. So I am six and I can no longer be free in this body I once ran wild in, but I should cover it because there are predators and I don’t tell because I am ashamed, and it was no big deal, no reason to fuss.

I am fourteen. I feel my body changing on me, I notice and others notice and I no longer have the freedom of my youth. Blood comes and I am embarrassed; hiding the grocery store runs, keeping it a secret, seeing my brother laugh when he looks under the sink. It is a wonder of growing to womanhood, but I am starting to hate being a woman.  I am ashamed at what my body does, this beautiful thing that I once ran free in is turning on me, making me awkward and uncomfortable because even you are now uncomfortable with that thought. Boy’s eyes consume rather than see. I am told this is my fault, I am told God wants me to cover my body, wear longer skirts and shirts up to my collar bone and be sure it isn’t tight.  But how much skin is okay? Because other girls cover their whole body in black and I heard of the day there were two separate staircases for males and females so that males wouldn’t accidentally catch a glimpse of a girl’s ankle.

Now that I am fourteen, now that I am changing, is God now ashamed with what he made? The body formed in my mother, so good and beautiful, turned to shame with age and religious threads weaving and constructing my social identity? Oppression for something I cannot control, something completely natural and good. If this body is not holy in and of itself then God should have never made it in the first place. It’s the flower hating its vibrant petals, the beautiful tree sprouting from the earth only to grow and be ashamed of its bark.

I am twenty. I have rejected the shy, awkward aspects of womanhood and instead learned to joke about it to cope and be cool. But when night comes, I am often afraid to walk down the street alone. Every walk I take is accompanied with fear, because I see the eyes consume. I hear the threats and am followed. I have friends who are victims. Every girl I know has been afraid, every one of them. From taking a simple walk to rape and a child coming from it. One hid in the laundry basket when she was 9. One silently prayed every night from 13 to 16 that her father would be too drunk to come into her bed. One was at a party with her friend, he wanted something, she didn’t, so he trapped her in the restroom. One hid from her brother, another from her grandfather, another from her coworker. Some say it is the woman’s fault—the shirt was too low, breasts too big, how can a man resist?  But here’s a staggering idea: maybe the victim isn’t at fault. If in looking at the beautiful woman’s body you cannot appreciate her beauty but must strip and consume then it is true our culture has poisoned your mind—consume, take, be the animal, take, take, take.

Shame. Did my mother think that when she held me close to her chest at my birth? Was she ashamed? The beautiful form becomes forbidden and lusted at a certain age, all held together by a story of a serpent and a woman. Though some claim the curse is broken, some still believe it—the body is shamed, curse ever present.

I am thirty. I made two girls within my own body, felt the rush of bringing them into the world, and when I saw their bodies, I saw a miracle. Their skin and eye lashes perfect. Tiny lips, tiny fingernails, eyes embodying innocence and awe. They grow and run around my house naked and scream wildly without self-awareness or social concern. I teach them about our culture and what is and isn’t acceptable. But what I will not teach them is shame of their body. It was beautiful from moment one, and that will not change – not with age, not with anything. One daughter looks at her body in the mirror, we talk about the organs and skin, how her body will change. She is beautiful on every count. I remember when I was six, and I know I have to warn her. Not shame her, but tell her how some people were not taught to love, but take for themselves and she must be brave and aware. It pains me as I tell her, her innocent mind not know why one person would hurt another in such a way. “Do not be afraid,” I tell her. “But this is our culture, so be smart and be aware my brave girl.” Shame teaches us, but I will not teach my daughters in this way. I will empower them to be proud of their bodies, respectful of their bodies, in awe of how miraculous it is and what it is capable of.

 I will tell my daughter that to be a woman is not to be lesser, not object, not the bed in the red light district, nor the “bitch” in the hotel. She is not the body to exploit or product to consume.

“She” is not shame.

“She” is beautiful woman with beautiful body, capable of cosmic realities. Holding someone close, experiencing love, making love, creating life, accepting another human life as her own, feeling pain, joy, giving strength, healing with a kiss, wholeness with a touch; giving physical and mental nourishment with her own body.

“She” is grounded enough to follow, still capable to lead from a child to a nation.  The woman’s body is made in the image of Love, from Love herself, Life herself, so she herself is of God.

For my Grandmother, for my Mother, for my daughters, my friends, and as a reminder to myself: be proud, beautiful woman, your body is intrinsically good, perfectly good.

Perfect from moment one.

By Lisa Gungor, part of the wonderful Gungormusic.com world.

Can nonprofits do User Experience Testing?

Most government and nonprofit websites get built by describing the specifications and design, getting someone to build it and then after internal review, launch! That can work, but it often produces sites (and apps) that don’t really meet the specific needs of your audience, your users, your stakeholders.  Despite this being how we do things in this sector, there are better practices out there; one of the better things to come from Silicon Valley is the field of User Experience or user testing- something intimidating at first but something very much within reach of any organization or agency. Let me tell you about how we’ve started using this practice- I’m not an expert but I’ve had the privilege of working with some through OpenOakland and now we’re putting this to the test at Urban Strategies Council.

techPathways.org is a new website that’s being created in partnership with a bunch of great orgs in the East Bay- it’s bootstrapped (done on the cheap) and not yet officially launched, but it exists, so don’t consider it a secret.  We had the idea formed by many stakeholders, a great design shop pro-bono’d the look and feel (Raizlabs) and another small firm built it (dStrategies).  We have a fantastic marketing strategist helping put together our plan to promote and sustain the site too (thanks Carrie). What was missing in all of this expertise and thinking was the users- the people we’re really building this to help.  We want to demystify tech jobs for young people of color in the east bay- to change both the technology career pipeline itself and to encourage local youth to get into jobs that pay well enough to help them stay in Oakland and the East Bay.  Clearly we needed to hear directly from some of those young people about how techPathways.org could work best for them.

User Experience testing requires one hard thing- a willingness to hear from others how bad your product may be.  Listening is critical, but if you’re not open to hearing a bad message, you won’t do this right.

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We conducted our first UX session in partnership with Youth Radio, just across the street.  They gathered six young people from one of their programs and our team planned out a session that would do these things:

  • Gather feedback on the interface design- do young people find their way around the site as planned?
  • Refine language on the site- is our wonk-level language use ok, or are we confusing users?
  • Validating or refuting our ideas on what information young people want when seeking training opportunities.

We adapted some questions from a session I’ve helped run before and then got to work with our group. Our session was 50 minutes long and had four main segments:

  1. General questions about how they find jobs and training currently- and what they imagine they would want from a website like this;
  2. Watching them try out the site individually to assess how they navigate it, followed by general feedback as a group;
  3. Showing the group some planned new features using a paper prototype, to get their feedback; and
  4. An exercise to draw up their career pathway- on paper.

From this session we learned many important things- almost all of them easy/cheap to fix.  Imagine that- launching a website knowing that many things have been already validated or improved by your users!  Some UX sessions will have you throwing your head to the desk as your assumptions were wrong, or the design just wrong, but it’s such a valuable gain that I can’t imagine doing any projects on the web without doing this each time.  We learned that many pieces of language were not clear- that buttons needed renaming, menus rearranged and renamed, contact forms made more prominent, linkages changing and also that they really dug the design and build of the site.

We also learned much about how to get this site used by young people- and our plan to focus on Instagram and SnapChat for promotion was altered when we heard they found out about programs from their moms a lot- so we can re-add Facebook to our list- if that’s where adults are, we can reach them there, and thereby reach their kids too. Small things.

We’ve got one more session planned with another youth development partner Soulciety. Then we’ll be launching for real.  My guess is that this approach added about:

  • Three hours to arrange the sessions;
  • Four hours to plan them;
  • One hour each to execute;
  • One hour to review changes.

So when you’re building a digital tool or website- think about the value of testing your product with an audience early on- ten hours can give you critical feedback and let you adjust a product to really meet the needs of your users better. And maybe avoid some embarrassment.

 

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Special thanks to Andrea Moed for her feedback on this post, but more importantly for teaching me so much in partnership at OpenOakland- I may have helped create this space but each one teach one is how it really works in community.

A new era for OpenOakland (burnout in #civictech)

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Three and a half years, a dozen apps, some new laws, hundreds of hack nights, ten big public events and many new friends across the country. OpenOakland has been a huge part of my life since Eddie Tejeda and I decided our city needed us to do something, and it’s a part of my life that I’m stepping back from, with huge sadness, much love and much hope that the people I’m leaving it to will do new, great things with this vehicle for civic action we’ve built together.

As of May 30, both Eddie and myself are stepping down and we’ll no longer be leading this organization. We’ll always have pride in being the co-founders of an Oakland made creation that has seen impact across the United States of America and inspired others across the world, but we’re at a point where we both need space in our lives that isn’t possible with paying jobs and leading a civic organization. Not anymore at least.

I’ve balanced my family (three little girls), my marriage and my love for Oakland and for what we’ve made through OpenOakland, but it’s become harder to put in the time needed to really grown and develop and organization at this phase- we need to figure out our business model, raise funds, build a board and keep producing apps, advocacy and events, whilst supporting our volunteer base (love y’all). I’m aware that I’ve sacrificed much but I’ve loved doing so. But I need space for myself, space to get physically fit again, space to enjoy being a dad and not compromising weekends with my kids for retreats or hack days, and space to enjoy being a husband and not having “all those evening events”. My wife has supported me in this work for a long time, but we’ve also agreed to accountability- we’ve blown through a couple of dates we set for me to step out if it wasn’t clear there was a fundable role to take on, and my wife was gracious in that, thank you, but now it is time.

This is a hard choice, I’ve shed tears over it (I may not empathize well but I do have the feels) and I’m a bit stunned by the idea of not having an org to run, things to build, people to support, but I’ve got ideas brewing and am looking forward to the space to nurture them. I’d also love to be serving more in different ways, maybe with our church, maybe with protest movements, I’m not really sure yet.

Being part of this, maybe even being a leader in the open government movement, has been wonderful, and I’m not opting out all the way, I still think this stuff matters greatly. I’ve gotten to become friends with people I admired previously and that’s a special thing. People like Jen Pahlka, Noel Hidalgo, Derek Eder, Luke Fretwell, Dan O’Neill, Tim O’Reilly, Harlan Weber, Bill Bushey, Mjumbe Poe and many more- you all have inspired me, challenged me and pushed me to keep moving toward a vision of a better world, a better Oakland.

Our executive team at OpenOakland has a lot to take on now with both founders stepping down, but I’ve realized this past year that our team is truly amazing; their dedication, passion, creativity and ingenuity are really just incredible, and I have faith in them to guide this organization forward, even if that’s in a different direction than the one we set out on- go for it!

I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not disengaging from the civic tech world. I’ve committed to helping the brigade movement figure out how to sustain and grow, and I’ve got ideas for Oakland too. But in the near future I’ll be making sure OpenOakland has a smooth transition and then just being a social justice researcher and advocate, husband, dad, and friend for a while.

Mining for gold, clearing drains, taking the hits

I’ve appreciated the thoughts recently from Mark Headd and Andrew Nicklin on how innovation in civic tech isn’t standing the test of time, nor scaling.

As some of our local projects get to conversations of sustaining, I think it’s one of the most important roles OpenOakland has played- taking on the risk. It has meant that many projects die slowly, but others, even our Adopta, are now at a point that our city partners see immense value in them, and want to figure out how to grow them, and with horizontal scale that’s pretty amazing.

In Oakland, our Adoptdrain app isnt that sexy, but it’s really ramped up the impact of the program run by Environmental Services.

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The city staff are building a coalition of several other cities who have forked our code and stood up their own local adopta-drain apps, and they jointly want to support the growth of this tool, all with their own modest change to local instances. This is pretty awesome, simple apps that improve operations of government services and help people step in to do civic work that helps their city’s bottom line. But where we have an opportunity to scale, and government staff willing to consider new risks, we have a model problem.

Orgs like ours (openoakland.org) are great at innovating, trying new things, taking on the risk of possible failure, but we’re not built for sustaining. It’s one thing to get a volunteer team to build an app, or redeploy one, but to do long term code base updates, support requests, deal with multiple clients and feature demands? No, not a good fit. Maybe if we built out a collective of techs for hire, but then we’d be something else altogether.

Reflecting on 3+ years running a civic tech org, Eddie Tejeda and I almost, almost started an open source civic services firm (maybe akin to Andrew Hoppin’s shop, but likely not as good) because we saw that government needed support in adopting (ha) open source tech. But we decided to build OpenOakland as a community, an advocacy and innovation organization instead. Now we’re at a place where our partners need an open source services firm to help them grow. Not just more volunteers. Progress? Yep.

When I look at what came out of our work building Answers.oaklandnet.com I get a similar pattern- I’d wanted to see what we could achieve through this tech/process for a year before we pulled it off, but now it’s still the most useful city web element that people rely on frequently, and it’s inspired some of the city’s approach to the new digital front door project and how the city considers partnering with community. Maybe the app itself is in need of some love, but what this effort sparked was much greater. Again, not a sustainable system built by hackers in one weekend, but a new idea of how to do things better, in collaboration with community.

I’m pretty proud of these outcomes, even if we’ve not gotten our open-by-default government yet. But I see much more to be done. Join us!

Going 3:0. On maternity leave, fatherhood and avoiding feminism

Five weeks ago I became the father to a baby girl named Madeline. She’s my third daughter. My third kid under 4. My life is a bit of a beautiful mess right now with three in diapers. But I’m a dad again and that is something fricking amazing, something beyond anything I had ever known as a non-kid having person. Joy. Till kids I hadn’t really known what joy meant.  And now there’s four females in my life.

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Despite some strange tendency of men and women to ask me “aren’t you sad you didn’t have a boy?”, I still feel about 1 in 100 on the remorse/sadness scale of not having a male child to retain my legacy/name/whatever. My daughters are rad.  But 3 is enough.

America.

Don’t get me started. Nine or so years ago we talked about kids. It horrified me that something as crazy as governmental policy and right wing bullshit was the reason we didn’t have kids earlier- coming from an (apparently) socialist country like Australia where I had never once considered the cost/insurance angle of parenthood. But once I learned the basics of the US system of (not) caring for your people, I was pretty stunned. I was working as a nonprofit research analyst and my wife was in school and part time university, and we couldn’t afford pregnancy on multiple levels, so we waited. My mind went from stunned to angry that health insurance policy was responsible for us not being cool becoming parents, yet.

Delaying being a family because of insurance coverage- not something I’d heard of in my entire life. Still sounds messed up. But it happened with us. We couldn’t see a way to make ends meet with no family coverage- given market rates for spouse+kid it just seemed prohibitive, and that made us pretty sad.  We weren’t poor by any means but it still was a hard reality.

Now, we have good coverage, sweet. Easy life. Almost?

Maternity. Pregnancy aka the pre-existing condition you don’t want.

I took three weeks off to meet my new daughter and to support my wife in looking after the other two. I loved that time, but it’s over, back to work and to managing OpenOakland. I’ve had the privilege and good fortune to work for an organization with decent leave policies, but having kids really makes you question the policy approach to supporting families in the USA. My wife is lucky enough to have 3 months off work, which is not something to laugh at, but in light of the way more progressive and family friendly policies in developed nations it really leaves a bitter taste.  We have the worst family policies.  Seeing how much we bond with our kids, knowing how hard it is to raise kids while working a mix of full and part-time, while on decent wages, then hearing Washington politicians talking about hand-outs, entitlement and crap like this, this system is broken. Back in Australia a parent can take a full year off work to raise a newborn.  That means safety, space and time to adapt to being a parent (which is awesome but damn hard). Sweden leads the world with their policy of over a year on leave, paid well.

We have it so much better than minimum wage families who need to do two or more jobs to barely get by with some benefits, yet we don’t find this easy to manage without family help close at hand. Raising kids in the bay is a real thing, a hard thing, many of our friends have moved east to be closer to families, closer to bigger, affordable housing and better schools. I don’t blame them.  Don’t you ever wonder how transformative it would be for a low wage family to have a parent take a year off (hard) work to raise their newborn? With no stress (which hurts our health) and with no drama of trying to find a sitter whilst doing two jobs?  To me, this sounds like a country I want, a country that treats it’s citizens with dignity and that recognizes the value of family, not just for political posturing as “family values” representatives who don’t do much for families.

So given we’re pretty much past all the times we could benefit from such a system change (we’ve established above the imminent lack of ability to produce more offspring), I have little to gain from any changes- so call me experienced and moderately independent- we have to change how we treat families.  We need longer parental leave, better job protection and we certainly need to not scrap the ACA and it’s elimination of pregnancy as a pre-existing condition that will exclude you from new health coverage.  There are many other areas of our society where we’re seeing positive, but slow change.

Change however, doesn’t seem to happen fast if the current system is only hurting women or people of color.

Feminism

I’ve been an anti-racist for a very long time, but it seems that being a husband and now a father to three daughters is also making me more of a feminist than I thought possible.  How can I love someone and not take seriously, not get angry about the ways they are mistreated, disrespected?  And then not also care for all the others in the same boat by extension?  This shift in my ideas hasn’t been easy, I grew up in outback Australia with a pretty chauvinistic perspective on life.  But now I’m being challenged to act in ways that match my heart.  It seems like I’m being stretched to understand how my faith applies to more aspects of my society.  I struggle to see how Christians publicly espouse hate towards “the gays”, trans folks and immigrants, while I see more and more that justice, equality and love have to be applied outwards, towards those in our society who aren’t just the same as us.  Sometimes this is being an ally to Black Lives Matters, sometimes it’s trying to figure out how our actions, our systems are unjust towards women and people of color.

My girls are wonderful beyond words, and my desire to see them grow to love life, to love others and to seek justice and have compassion is deep, but it seems like I need to also fight for a future that is consistent with the way I want them to be treated- to be paid fairly, to be free to start a family without fear of healthcare costs and to not face sexualization and discrimination. I guess I’m now a feminist, of sorts.

Bridging the CitiStat Gap

Excellent points from Mark, all things we need to really ramp up for Oakland!

Civic Innovations

One of the realities of being a Chief Data Officer is that your day is often filled with meetings where you are the least popular person in the room.

Working with government agencies to release data – particularly if agencies are new to the open data process, or if the data in question has not been released before – can be challenging. Releasing open data can invite scrutiny of agency operations from the public and the media. Agencies may view releasing open data as falling outside of their core mission, particularly if their plate is already full and there is little or no funding to support the work that needs to be done to make data available.

Working with agencies to release data can be a lonely job.

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Open Data in the Capitol- aka the anti-PDF and show us your data day.

Today I spent my day sitting in senate and assembly hearing rooms in our (rather beautiful) state capitol to testify in favor of two new bills that would make open data more impacting in California.

It’s a bit of a departure from my normal tech scene, but for the first time there are a slew of bills hitting the state and these are really important to the future of our state.

The first up was SB 272 from Senator Hertzberg, a piece of legislation that requires local governments to conduct and publish an inventory of their data systems and contents.  This one is big. I’m calling it the “Show us your data bill”.

Open data has been used by civic hackers to build countless new apps and to explain data in new ways, from apps that help inform people if they live in earthquake safe homes, to making city budgets understandable for the first time through to tools that help families find early childhood education and services easily, from the convenience of their phone.

SB272 is an important piece of our state infrastructure- while may cities do have open data policies, these take some time to implement and residents are left in the dark about what data their local government actually has, and how it’s collected.  This is important from a perspective of trust building for sure- knowing what data our police department collects is vitally important to understanding how that department works.  We’ve had impassioned fights in Oakland over data privacy yet most of this debate is happening without really know just how much and what kind of data our city really has. 

Data inventories will empower residents and will lead to better quality public records requests- right now, if you don’t know what is collected, you are forced to make vague, uncertain requests, never sure if the data exist.  With public data inventories, our communities will be able to make informed requests. This builds trust and improves efficiency.

SB 272 is also important as there is too much opacity in local government contracting; making visible the exact systems and software used in managing these data will provide valuable intelligence to the business community.

Lastly, it is also critical that we develop these inventories as technologists build ever more powerful and useful apps, we run into the issues of these apps stopping at your city border because the data don’t exist or aren’t obviously available in the next city over.  Knowing which data exist, and where, is a huge step forward in encouraging future innovation and making modern tools work for all of our residents.

Next up was AB169 from Assemblymember Mainschein, a small piece of legislation that helps define what “open” means and helps to firm up the standards in which data are published, when published.  Let’s call this one the “Kill All PDFs” Bill. It requires data or records to be published in machine readable, digital formats in ways that can be searched and indexed- this is good, but unfortunately a PDF can be searched by Google, so maybe this bill isn’t perfect from a geek’s perspective, but it does make data publishing standards much clear and more helpful for those of us using public data.  Perhaps as important, this bill requires data to be published in the original structure where possible- putting pressure on government staff to not refactor or redact data files unless legally necessary.

Both bills went through with unanimous support, off to the next stage of political machination.  I’m hopeful they will see sunlight in the end, they are important pieces of our future.  As this day wraps up, I’m left dwelling on this one thing- every issue heard today had a slew of hired lobbyists to represent the various interests- electric cars, solar systems, government contractors and more; I’ve been frustrated by the lack of movement and leadership at a state level in California regarding open data and now I realize something-

Open Data has no lobbyist. 

CityCamp Oakland in review

CityCamp Oakland in review


It’s been a month and a half since CityCamp Oakland hit the halls of Oakland and we’ve asked both our guests for their honest feedback as well as done some intensive debriefing amongst our team and members.  We realize that volunteer led events as well as those run by well paid professional teams can always get better and we intend to do just that- get better with every event we do.  There were…

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Open Data and Policing Reform

It’s not often you get to testify to one of your most admired leaders, and to do so side by side with another amazing community leader you’ve respected and appreciated from afar, but today I get to do both of these things and I’m pretty much in awe of how much of a privilege this is. It’s harder and harder to leave my girls at home and travel but for someone deep in the work of making cities better and more equitable at a local level, there are few chances to possibly influence change at a national level. And so I’m in Cincinnati where it’s below freezing, away from sunny California where yesterday I was drinking a good beer on the balcony with my wife complaining it was too warm. In January.

Today I’m testifying to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which includes Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, a man who bought me to tears last time I heard him speak. I don’t go in for hero worship, but Bryan would be on the short list.

What does a data geek and open government advocate have to say about the future of policing reforms in our country? My testimony is below…

Dear members of the task force and other community leaders,

I’m speaking today on behalf of Urban Strategies Council, a 28 year old social justice organization in Oakland, California where I have had the privilege of being the director of research and technology for almost eight and a half years. I am also here on behalf of OpenOakland, a civic innovation organization that I co-founded with Eddie Tejeda.

My work with the council has provided me with an opportunity to see how a lack of transparency in local government affects data-driven decision making. government technology, and community engagement. I’ve had the chance to work with many local agencies and community based organizations to help them unearth their valuable data, to analyse it and put it in context and then to help communicate the story and results of those data.

Traditionally the role of government has been perceived as a collector of data for compliance and reporting purposes, yet this is no longer sufficient in our view of 21st Century government. Government now needs to be pro-active across all agencies, especially those traditionally very closed and inaccessible. For many years we have been unearthing public data for research purposes and publishing these data openly for all to access- from data on local probationer populations, to crime reports and foreclosure filings. When we obtained both open and private data and published a report on the investor acquisitions of foreclosed homes, our work led to the creation of new laws to protect tenants and monitor housing purchases. When public data is put in the hands of communities, powerful things can happen.

We led an effort to crowd source the legislation to make open data the law in Oakland and now we have local agencies actively making data available to the public free of charge or restriction. This has led to breakthrough innovations such as OpenBudgetOakland.org which when shown to our city council led to disbelief- never before had decision makers seen their own budget in such clear context and the impact was powerful. Residents of our city were able to understand a complicated 16,000 line budget for the very first time- something made possible by opening data and by engaging the community in a respectful collaboration. Hackers, city staff and advocates working together.

Another local example of what happens when government opens up valuable data and collaborates includes our earthquake safety app (http:/softstory.openoakland.org) that helps inform low income renters if they are living in a building susceptible to collapse in the next big quake. This app was built by the community as open source and is now being deployed in a nearby city.

You’ll notice I’ve not talked about great policing collaboration examples. For good reason. Despite generating a near real time flow of crime reports, our local police departments and sheriffs have not been eager to jump into the world of open data, yet. Given the lack of trust in the Oakland Police Department, the need for real community policing and a dearth of accessible information about policing practices and incidents, Oakland is like most other US law enforcement agencies in its need to embrace open data, to develop respectful collaborations and engagement that leads to innovation.

Given the way communities of color are impacted by crime and violence, and the number of officer- involved shootings and assaults on officers, there is a very real and urgent opportunity for data to be leveraged for their benefit. Right now there are activist groups building databases of all officer- involved incidents and homicides;, these are duplicated efforts costing hundreds of hours of community time from projects such as Oakland’s Shine in Peace to http://killedbypolice.net/ and http://www.fatalencounters.org/. These projects should be taken as a leading indicator of a huge and growing demand for better transparency in our law enforcement agencies – citizens are clamouring for data to inform decision making, policy reform and civic action. When communities across the country need to collect news reports of officer- involved shootings and homicides, we’re missing something. When stop and frisk data are hidden from public view and not available for community research and analysis, we’re missing something. When arrest information only sees sunlight in the form of aggregate yearly reports, we’re missing something. That something will be realized when local law enforcement adopts a policy of open by default and begins publishing (with some obvious legal limitations) record level data of all crime reports, arrests, uses of force and weapon discharges along with stop and frisk incident data.

As individuals we do not trust that which we cannot see. Publishing data alone will not lead to better insights and operations, it is not a silver bullet to restoring community trust in police departments. However, in publishing these data on an ongoing basis, we make possible new, productive collaborations, new opportunities to engage with somewhat objective truths to work from and we allow for innovations that we could not predict. My recommendation to this task force: make open by default the new norm for our police forces, support the open publishing of these data, encourage standard data formats and support these agencies taking a leading role to learn together and to work towards common goals. Toward a future where transparency is no longer a laughable concept when it comes to law enforcement, where communities trust the information coming out of police databases and where residents can see and understand patterns and problems for themselves. Then we can have informed debates and start to remake policing in the USA in ways we agree on.