#civichacking: “creative, often technological approaches to solving civic problems like how to get more people to register to vote”


Open Data Day in Oakland! it’s official baby.

 At City Council on Tues 19th, Oakland officially declares Saturday 23rd, 2013 to be recognized as Open Data Day! Wahooo!

This is a great step for our city to be officially recognizing the importance of a number of things we’ve been pushing and supporting for some time. The resolution (linked below) recognizes:


Full resolution text below, linking to a PDF is just too ironic for an open data win! Speaking of such, anyone down to work on getting all city notices out of PDF and into machine readable text? Yes, then join us!


WHEREAS, Open Data represents the idea that information such as government databases should be
easily and freely available to everyone to use and republish without restrictions; and

WHEREAS, Open Data increases transparency, access to public information, and improves
coordination and efficiencies among agencies and partner organizations; and

WHEREAS, access to public information promotes a higher level of civic engagement and allows
citizens to provide valuable feedback to government officials regarding local issues; and

WHEREAS, this month Oakland has formally announced the launch of its open data platform
“data.oaklandnet.com,” that will serve as the central repository of the City of Oakland’s public data, such as
data on crime, public works, public facilities, and spatial data, allowing all users to freely access, visualize
and download City data, enabling public scrutiny and empowering the creativity of civic-minded software
developers; and

WHEREAS, Oakland was honored to be selected as one of only ten cities in America to participate in
the 2013 Code for America (CFA) program, where three CFA fellows will work with the City to identify web-
based solutions to break down cumbersome bureaucratic processes and emerge with better systems that will
help cut costs, increase efficiency, and provide better service to the public; and

WHEREAS, Open Data activists have recently founded the civic innovation organization Open Oakland
– a Code for America Brigade, which meets every Tuesday evening in City Hall, bringing together coders,
designers, “data geeks,” journalists, and city staff to collaborate on solutions to improve Oakland’s service
delivery to all citizens of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, on December 1, 2012 Open Oakland produced the first ever “CityCamp Oakland,” inside
city hall, where over 100 stakeholders came together to discuss solutions to improve Oakland; and

WHEREAS, Oakland recently launched a community engagement web site called
“EngageOakland.com,” to encourage community ideas, feedback and suggestions to help shape, grow and
sustain the healthy future of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, “February 23, 2013 is International Data Day,” a day in which citizens around the world
will gather to access Open Data, write applications, create visualizations, publish analyses, and encourage the
adoption of open data policies at the local, regional and national government levels; and


WHEREAS, on February 23, 2013 at Oakland’s 81st Avenue Branch Library, Open Oakland, in honor
of International Open Data Day, will host a day of “hacking” public data and building data visualization tools to
help explain data and make stronger community-government connections; therefore be it

RESOLVED: That the City Council hereby declares February 23, 2013 as Open Data Day in the City
of Oakland; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED: That in honor of International Open Data Day the City Council hereby
recognizes and salutes Open Oakland founders Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejada; Oakland’s 2013 Code For
America Fellows Richa Agarwal, Cris Cristina and Sheila Dugan, and Oakland’s Code for America sponsors:
The Akonadi Foundation, The William H. Donner Foundation, The Robert A.D. Schwartz Fund, The Mitchell
Kapor Foundation, Accela and Pandora, for their service to the City of Oakland and its citizens.

Local Benefits of Open Data

CapGemini recently published their report on the progress and success of global open data initiatives, at a country level. It has some really insightful data and points, and isn’t a tough read at 17 pages. As my city Oakland, and our county, Alameda, launch their open data platforms I think this national level report has a lot for us to consider about local efforts.

Some broad concepts that we seek to capture:

Open Data drives growth by stimulating the creation of firms that reuse freely available government information in innovative ways.

This is the macro promise, and it’s a clear correlation.  In the San Francisco East bay it will be telling if these benefits are local, where the data live, or dispersed and hard to measure as local benefits of local efforts.


And now the test of time begins:

96% of the countries analyzed in our research shared data which is not regularly updated.

This is the ugly stuff- maintenance. It’s great to get publicity friendly wins on the board with data releases, cool new apps and tools, but in a year down the road, if those new data are the same data then we’re just made a blip on the heart rate monitor and it’s not looking like a living, breathing being anymore.

But we need to be honest in the civic innovation/hacking world too- there have been incredibly powerful and cool things built by amazing developers, especially the work of Code for America, but many of these things created in past years that have not been commercialized face an ugly reality- the task of maintenance.

Google learned some good, hard lessons with updating road data for Google maps (Apple Maps seems to be doing more of the hard and less of the good so far). I have some mixed feelings about a lot of tech I love to use- uncertainty about the ease which we can manage both granular and major changes to the underlying data used. If users add to the administrative data it’s a great collaboration, when the underlying data shifts slightly however, we have some tough work to do. Let’s not forget that. Enterprise and government level tech frequently sucks, in some part because it requires full time managing of the data. I’m hoping our more cutting edge tools stand up to these tests in the coming years.

Sustaining open

Open Data initiatives need to be driven from the top with strong political leadership.

We now have two great resources in Oakland/Alameda. City and County staff have listened to those of us who encouraged these efforts and have done good work to implement the tools and practices to support open data. What is now clearly absent from our efforts is the legislative support to truly sustain and mandate these initiatives don’t just disappear at the whim of any bureaucrat or budget adjustment. No US cities or jurisdictions I’m aware of have done it quite like we have here. These efforts have been driven by informed political leaders who have implemented laws and orders to support and sustain open data. We are now at that time in Oakland & Alameda. Our mayor and councilors, our supervisors need to now swiftly adapt legislation used in many other cities (a very easy task, heck I’ve done it for them already and given them copies) to show not only their support for this efforts, but to clarify their vision and intent in law.

I’m looking to our leaders to really drive these efforts, to provide a vision that puts them in context and laws to ensure these great efforts don’t die on the vine like too many other good efforts have.  Open government is good government, it also happens to be smart government. Data is now becoming open and public, now you can really engage your communities  with and through these data!

The original report PDF

Time series animation of homicides in Oakland I built with data from 1995 to 2012. View in 720HD or it’s all fuzz. What stands out to me especially is the spread of murders into the northern parts of the city and up above the 580….

Code for America Fellowship launch in Oakland

Got to be part of the presser for the fellows today, celebrating the start of their placement in Oakland City Hall for their Code for America work. High hopes for what these three can achieve and for the path they can help us lay out for innovation and openness in local government!

The city team and the fellows

Jen Pahlka of CfA

Eddie Tejeda of OpenOakland, CfA alum and BlightStatus

Years of life lost: the huge cost on our country.

From my public health background I appreciate this take on gun violence- this part of the story has not been in the national discourse but it’s a very real problem- for every victim we lose a productive* member of our society who could have gone on to do good things, bring in income, pay taxes, support families. The years of life lost to gun violence is truly staggering.


*No, I’m not ignorant of the fact that many shot are thugs and may not have had a positive life trajectory. But that doesn’t mean we can consider their lives as no loss. They have families and friends and many in  the game turn their lives around. Don’t dismiss people because they are not living the straight and narrow “like the rest of us”. We all count. We all have mothers.


Fun with FOIA – Public Records games in California

It’s a good day for open public data in Oakland today. And a slightly confusing one too.

The City of Oakland launched their new open public data system- a one stop website where you can find public records, GIS data, city data and more: http://data.oaklandnet.com

It’s just launched so not every conceivable dataset is available just yet, but this is a great start and a good sign that Oakland is slowly getting it that open government is not just good government, it’s also smart government. This is slow in coming, it feels like a long time back that I first started hounding city councilors and staff about considering open data in Oakland, but we got there!

And this new data is just in time for our next event- for International Open Data Day! We’re hosting a hackathon at the 81st Ave Library in Oakland, sign up now to get your data hack on with other great peeps who love this city and love data: http://opendataday.openoakland.org

So that’s the good part about open public data today, now for the strange part.

Property ownership data is public record. Your name and ownership data, property value and all that. You can even map it out nice and easy online. image

As soon as the Oakland site went live I got inquiries about parcel data. It wasn’t there strangely, so I sent people to the County site, and someone complained fairly that there were no owner records available. Strange. So I sent them a link to our community run data catalog which has our complete Assessor’s Secured Roll. Easy. Collaboration and communication, nice.

Well, nice until a clever reporter type pointed out the wonders of the California Government Code Section 6254.21:

(a) No state or local agency shall post the home address
or telephone number of any elected or appointed official on the
Internet without first obtaining the written permission of that

Ahhhh, that would explain the missing name fields. Government agencies cannot publish addresses of electeds. So instead of maintaining a long list of those names to scrub form data files, they just presumably remove the entire name field? Interesting.

Even more ominous is the following:

(b) No person shall knowingly post the home address or telephone
number of any elected or appointed official, or of the official's
residing spouse or child, on the Internet knowing that person is an
elected or appointed official and intending to cause imminent great
bodily harm that is likely to occur or threatening to cause imminent
great bodily harm to that individual. 

Luckily I don’t know anyone who would want to cause harm, but the following section c goes on to describe that if an elected official writes to you, you have 48 hours to remove that info and you cannot transmit it in anyway ever again. Sure. Easy.

The screwed up part of all this is that for $25 you can walk into the county assessor’s office and buy a copy of the Secured Roll on DVD (cost of reproduction seems fine) and you have all the elected officials records, names and all.

So once again our laws, our practices and our technology are all out of wack. Government is prohibited from posting info online but can issue the file to anyone with no questions. Residents may post the content as long as they are nice. So given that I am of good intent only, it appears that I may legally post to the interwebs these data. Which I shall do.

Oh how I love you California.

Note- In California we don’t really use FOIA- our state and local gov is covered by the Public Records Act or PRA. Federal gov and some states are covered under FOIA. Just to be educational and correct. I did recall writing this above but Firefox did crash on me and wipe my entire post, in the rewrites I often get sloppy… oops.