Code for Oakland: Unexpected Awesomeness

It took me a long time to come down from the excitement driven high that was Code for Oakland, our second communty based hackathon in Oaktown designed to build our civic web. I’m refreshed, excited, motivated and optimistic about the direction of tech and civic innovation and engagement in the east bay and have many great people to thank for helping make this event rock.

I want to briefly share some stories of the event and to lay out some of the highlights and things that really stood out during the day.

First, it’s important to reiterate that this is a community supported hackathon, kinda like KPFA- community supported radio. We had some great support from local organizations through financial donations to help make it possible and without them the event could not have happened, so thanks to:
Ask.com
Socrata
Code for America
Kapor Foundation
The Oakland Tribune
Urban Strategies Council
The Kapor Foundation
Oakland Local
Neighborland
OpenShift/Red Hat
The City of Oakland
Pandora

With almost 150 people through the doors this was bigger and more intense than last year’s event. As a data geek I’m looking forward to analysing the data on ticket sales v no-shows in light of our experiment using the pay what you want model.

I’m excited that we had only 30% of the attendees that were software deveopers, engineers, hackers. My first reaction to the ticket sales patterns was- oh crap, we don’t have enough designers. But my man Eddie Tejeda quickly reframed this as an advantage- after all we need ideas and implementors and people who will use an app on each team, not just designers building for themselves and from their own idead. He was right. it worked.

I enjoyed Jen Pahlka’s keynote, showing us what this community can really do and how our impact matters. It’s easy as Jen mentioned, to forget your own town when there are so many needs and opportunities elsewhere that you’re asked to work!

Jen Pahlka

I was then completely overwhelmed with the intense, long list of pitches from our attendees. So many great ideas, all grounded in some very real issue or need in our community. It was brilliant, but tough to manage. I think we did a reasonable job of feeding ideas from our Neighborland system into the Googel Moderator and then trying to form teams based on general interest- given we were late and needed to expedite it could have been cleaner but most people were happy it seemed, even if a few ideas didn’t get a team because the interested pitchers joined other great project teams…

Oaklandwiki session

The first real shock of the day was the result at the end of the hack team formation- we’d spent some real time building out a great set of workshops and speaker sessions for the community and government audience who had signed up and would not be joining hack teams, just like last year. At the end of the team forming this was the scene in the gorgeous auditorium:

Wow. With only a few exceptions the whole room emptied and joined a hack team. No way. Random oaklanders from all walks of life jumped on hack teams? Damn. Stunned. I felt a crazy tension of embarassment that our great speakers were totally ditched (yes me included, how could you all?) and awe that so many people were excited to get involved in efforts they really had no comprehension of till this day. Yes this was an unplanned outcome. Very unplanned but that just makes it even more awesome- Oakland you rock.

The day was solid developing and designing from then on. All speakers cancelled. Empty auditorium. Crazy cool.

Dattit team

What stood out through the day was the intensity and desire for conversation about civic technology needs, engagement opportunities and open government and open data. People really crave a venue for these conversations. I had so many exciting conversations with peopel eager to learn more about what modern tech can offer our community and our city and ways we can support this community more consistently. Love it.

Our awesome judges

We had some elected officials and others show during the day, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, city administrator Deanna Santana,, county administrtor Susan Muranishi and the county IT crew including Tim Dupus and Tobin Broadhurst promoting their new open data resource at data.adgov.org. I look forward to the day when government leaders really devote serious time to be part of these events, but at I think that even the 15 minutes they spent with us achieved one significant goal: these leaders have now seen a building full of hackers! Not hackers seeking to destroy and undermine anything, but hackers with incredible skills seeking ways to support and growntheir community and our government. This is not a small thing. To alter their perception of this community is monumental. Hackers are not “the enemy”. Sure some can be, but the generalization is harmful to productive, innovative society that sees government embracing the abilities of moder, agile, opensource loving developers.

The day was done way too soon. Our judges struggled to identify the award splits between 10 great tools prototyped. The winning app called Hack The Budget is something that for some analysts and data visualization folks may seem trivial, but it isn’t. It’s a perfect example of how data processing, viz tools and throughtful design can take an arcane, clunky, unusable product/data and turn it into something absorbable by the wider community in our city. making government accessible is a huge challenge and this app seeks to do just that. I’d say this is a hugely re-usable app once complete and open sourced. What city doesn’t need a clearer way to navigate its budget- even for city officials themselves! I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this app when it’s complete!

The runner up app was 510eat.org, and as a geogeek I was surprised and stoked to see a full opengeo stack being used to build working app with newly released data from Alameda County. Open data being consumed and utilized as a new tool just two weeks after the resource was beta released. Nice work team!

Oaklandwiki session

Lessons learned for future/other hackathons:

Spend more time connecting teams- we had one viable team with no designers and another team with about 7 developers. Oops.

One day is tough with so many great ideas. The trend of three day hackathons is sensible. Friday evening pitches and team formation. Two days of building. This means we need a better suited venue in Oakland as the awesome Kaiser center has significant costs per day and bandwidth issues. – Ideas? Hit me on twitter with ideas or throw down in Neighborland!

We did a hackthon without soda- no Choke or other sugar hits. And noone died or even complained. We actually forgot to buy them first, then realized we didn’t have them last year either, so we decided to see how it worked out. And it did. We’ll all live a little longer to code a few more lines and make just a little bit more with our lives…

Post seems long now, thanks for getting this far and so long from sunny San Diego!

Mac world?

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