On Becoming an American. Thoughts on democracy and citizenship

Have you ever heard of the term Australian-American? I haven’t. But I’m about to use it a lot.

I was born and raised in the most remote town in the very heart of Australia, a place called Alice Springs, yes the one from the book and a couple of movies. 1,000 miles from the nearest city or the ocean. I grew up hunting kangaroos, trying to catch snakes, digging up grubs form tree roots to eat and working on a cattle ranch and slaughterhouse (grass fed baby, no other way in the bush). I don’t like wearing shoes still. I did live in a town and go to a normal school too, I’m not that wild. We did have a K-Mart and couple of high schools.

It’s been over twenty years since I left the bush. Almost seven years since I migrated to the USA and got married (yes I’m a mail-order husband). I’m know blessed to live in one of the most amazing parts of the world- the San Francisco Bay Area, the East Bay in particular.  I’m humbly proud to be an Aussie, we don’t do patriotism much, but I do love my homeland and miss it often. But this week I’m taking the US Citizenship exam to become an American, make that an Australian-American. I struggled with that term for some time, it sounded cheesy and stupid at first, but I thought of my Chinese and African-American compadres and what that term means for them. For me it’s similar- I am becoming a US Citizen and will be an American, as mixed as that is globally, but I’m always going to be an Australian- that doesn’t change. So I’m going to soon be an Australian-American.

Why would I want to do this? Why does it matter anyway?

I think it’s really important that we participate in the communities we live in. Passive residency never builds countries, nor change, nor vibrant communities. I think this operates both nationally as well as locally.  It’s easy to live the white flight dream of a suburban house with a nice school and two cars and to focus on career and family, but it’s also a passive existence.  I see a functioning democracy as a powerful, valuable thing that needs to be nurtured, like a garden or like a relationship. If we check out and live our lives focused inwardly we will build a nation of selfish, self interested individuals. That’s not something I want a part of.

I come from a country where voting is compulsory. 100% turnout. From that background, living in a country and not being able to vote is like being castrated civically. Even living in a state that may not represent any option for a shift in federal voting patterns I still feel dis-empowered by not being able to vote on issues I know about and care about. It feels like fraud to speak up on so many issues and not be able to vote on them. So the right to vote is definitely a big reason for me becoming a US Citizen. I’m much less excited about Jury Duty however.

I’ve had a great privilege to be part of local and national efforts to help make government more open, more accessible and more technologically agile. Again, coming from another country endows one with great perspective on the relative strengths and weaknesses of “how we do things”, and often on how things could be done a lot better.  Part of this work is connected with government officials, elected leaders and civic groups. I’m inspired by the passionate activism I see around me, the sacrificial leadership and support in service of low income and working communities of color and the fight for equality and freedom for all in the USA. I’ve had moments of disgust at the actions carried out by the State in this country that have made me seriously question my decision to become an American.  But like local struggles and issues, I don’t believe one can have an impact from the sidelines as a passive observer, one needs to be part of the community you are seeking to change.

I’m excited to be part of the changing discourse on politics and government service in this great country.  And part of my commitment to honoring public service, civil discourse and debate and activism is to become one with the others in this country.  I grew up with a strong sense of the importance of critical thinking and debate. Sometimes my wonderful wife things this is too strong… I’m often frustrated at the quality of discourse and media coverage on government in the USA, but I do believe that it does not have to be this way, but to bring about that change those of us with ideas and vision need to be active and involved. Government will not become more open, transparent, engaged and agile without our support and not until we break down this fallacy of government as THEM (the others) and the public as US (the people). Every member of the civil service is a resident and member of the public- they all live in communities and suffer or succeed with the rest of us. Likewise we the people are a self governed country, we make up our government and we have a role to play in our governance and in the changing direction of our country.

This change, the journey into an unknown but exciting future as a country is something I’m happy to sign up for.  I’m throwing my hat into the ring with the rest of you 305 million Americans. I think we can all do better. I think we all want more from our government and I have some ideas on how to make that happen. But I can’t do that from the sidelines.


The quality of our ideas is diminished when we close off debate with those who disagree with us, when we ignore evidence that challenges our preconceived notions.

Eggers & Oleary, If we can put a man on the moon…

Code for America Brigade Captains

Today the inaugural Brigade Captains were announced as part of the Code for America Brigade program. I’m proud and nervous to be the first Captain of an Oakland brigade- Open Oakland. I think we may well have a co-captain very soon too. There’s simply so many things a CfA Brigade can achieve in Oakland and a lot of work to coordinate and plan it out.

The official version is here:

“Brigade is all about recognizing and supporting the volunteer efforts of civic minded technologists throughout the country who want to contribute to the civic web and code for America where they live. Our aim at Code for America is grow, strengthen, and connect the network of people involved in doing so. We have two mechanisms for doing that.

The Brigade Captains program is our structured, facilitated, ideal model for local brigades and brigade leadership. Captains are enlisted for a one year commitment to develop, publish, and execute a year-long plan for their cities based on our core activities. Captains are hold regular meetings of their brigades, host events in their cities, and share the stories of their accomplishments.”

If you have an interest in open government, open data, civic innovation and have skills to help us move this work in Oakland please join the Brigade site, then email openoakland@googlegroups.com to connect in with us- our first meeting will be next week. Brainstorming, intros, plans and projects. Beer too.

Launch post

Fledgling site for Open Oakand

Here’s the rest of the captains/brigades:

Data Collection Community Style

I had the chance to see a preview today of the Detroit team’s app called LocalData today- part of the Code for America program.  Once again it’s very exciting to see what a team of outside designers, technologists, planners and data geeks can do in the right environment and with the right pretext. For me this is a liberating and exciting trend. Having come up with ways to do the exact same thing in my work I’m painfully aware of how clunky and onerous it is to set up the tools to conduct and manage and publish survey data- our city has been surveyed to death and the results are typically in the filing cabinets of nonprofits and government departments. useless.

Take a quick look at the video showing what LocalData is and does and read on..

LocalData Demo by Code for America from CfA Detroit on Vimeo.

These kinds of newly developed tools would have made a huge difference in the development and implementation of our last major community survey project with a team of high schoolers from Youth UpRising in East Oakland (full article here).

Typically if a community group, organizing group or public agency want’s to collect data they need to call some experts. And we don’t come cheap typically. When we started this project the ask was to help their youth survey their community, so we helped them to identify the focus- park conditions and safety, property conditions and healthy food availability.

Paper sucks, in most instances. We ended up choosing to purchase some discounted Trimble Juno GPS units and got donated ArcPad software from ESRi along with ArcGIS Mobile that came with our server licenses. At the time (mid 2010) the new Mobile software was terrible, super unstable on any setup we tried, bugs the development team couldn’t solve, so out went the more elegant interface and in went an ArcPad project. Trouble is no-one else on our team had had the joy of working with this product before, so fun for me… The devices were loaded with all the parcel data for their community and a bunch of survey screens to gather condition data- we copied a property survey done in another major city to have some form of data standard in the end. Let me just add that even for a seasoned GISP the learning curve and setup time for this app is not small or pretty.

The units froze in the field, crashed, lost data and all kinds of fun that frustrated the students and added time and cost to managing the project. I don’t think we had more than three students actually like using the device/app. But we got out data for the parks and for every property in the tract. 1,000 parcels surveyed. Every park in East Oakland surveyed (there we used a survey template from a HEAL group in Richmond to again try to get some comparable data in our region). But all the data had to be managed, processed and mapped by our team of researchers.

The finished poster of the project is below. The photos we had to take later with a real camera as the Juno devices would only provide ArcPad with a 160×120 image, awesome, that’s like 0.01 megapixels?? Another reason why a smartphone solution just kills it. Once we finished a friend of ours who is a java guru suggested next time we get a Java app built for a smartphone, faster and cheaper. This is where the Code for America approach is powerful. Most small nonprofits don’t have a budget for app developers and we have a hard time convincing managers to fund app/automation development up front to produce a reusable product that saves serious time later and can be reused elsewhere freely.  So we’re looking forward to implementing this new tool in Oakland and the east bay, especially on a full open stack with PostGIS! But we’ll still need funding to help make this happen 😉

Housing conditions

Oh, and as we believe strongly in open data this project’s data IS available in shapefile, excel or csv.

To see more about this great CfA project, to copy their code and more, hit up:


O’Reilly Radar Tumblr: White House announces Presidential Innovation Fellows


This morning, US Chief Technology Officer Todd Park announced the first class of “Presidential Innovation Fellows.”

“The Presidential Innovation Fellows program leverages the ingenuity of leading problem solvers from across America together with federal innovators to tackle projects that aim to…

O’Reilly Radar Tumblr: White House announces Presidential Innovation Fellows