How to (not) support new business in Oakland

There’s a lot of excitement in Oaktown lately, lots of amazing national press coverage about how amazing our town is, how great and diverse the food and culture is, the art and music scene and the bustling new venues to enjoy. People in city hall and various chambers are talking about new business opportunities here and are optimistic about the chances for a real retail and commerce boost to this wonderful but struggling city. I’ve been chatting with people about the ways to enable and encourage new business start-ups, in both the tech and regular retail/commerce world, lots of folks are positive about spaces being leased and used from Jack London to Uptown. Then I ran across a hackathon (that is sadly fully booked, say what?) with a focus on building opportunities for commonly disenfranchised and discouraged communities to help establish new businesses in their communities, very cool TED. And I started thinking about how a new entrepreneur goes about finding the space for their new business in San Francisco, and conversely how they would do the same in Oakland. Profound differences.

In SF you quickly stumble upon the official SF Prospector, an online tool that is old and clunky from a UI point of view but never the less allowed me to pick some square footage requirements, select an area of interest, a leasing rate and some other sensible variables and then to automate the process of finding possibly suitable sites. For my theoretical new photography studio I found a good location, that happened (by pure luck I’m sure) to be on a block with several other photographic studios close by, so fortunate locality with related traffic in the area, awesome.

But if I wanted my new site to be in sunny Oakland, to establish my new business in this side of the bay? Good luck. Leg work, connections, various real estate and small business sites with no real info and no leads. Nada from the city or the county. So we have a new dream team of the city administrator Deanna Santana, well reputed deputies in Scott Johnson and Fred Blackwell and zero ability for new business owners or expanding ones to find possible new locations quickly and online and at no cost. I was really stunned, nothing official, nothing to make the path smooth to help business locate in our town. WTF.

We recently soft launched www.infoalamedacounty.org as a web mapping and data viz tool to allow people to combine public data from multiple city and county agencies, all in one place, to promote data driven decision making and real, informed planning decisions. We aimed at our main partners in the CBO community, organizers and policy makers needing better access to data. But it may be that we need to load in all our countywide property data, connect up the foreclosure filings (which are privately held and sold by the way, or scraped…) and wait till the city releases all the current business permit data and vacancy info so we can just build this ourselves. The technology is no longer a real barrier, building interactive, responsive, usable tools to support our community should be a no-brainer for our governments, but it seems very slow in coming in the east bay. Technology is an enabler, but only if you choose to use it that way.

PS If you do know of a web based tool that does help businesses plan and launch in Oakland PLEASE let me know, I’d be happy to eat my words and let people know that it is actually possible!

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