Who needs laws anyway?

“We don’t need a mandate for those cities and counties and public agencies that will recognize this as best practices. We need the mandate for those few who may not,” Leno said.

Wow, and here was I thinking that we made laws for all the people who would follow them anyway? Brilliant leadership example by Mark Leno in response to the #CPRA debacle that was AB76. For now California’s antiquated public records act is safe.


What has Technology done for Equity lately?

George Packer recently published a fantastic piece on the inward focus of the Silicon Valley tech world.  It wasn’t enjoyable to read, more frustrating and angering over the ignorance around what the tech sector is doing to drive inequality in our country and how the tech boom has accelerated the push-out of middle class people from San Francisco. I do love me some ultra geekery and love my gadgets, but I also know that those things are not changing the world like some of us think they are.

I was struck by this line:

It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.

I’ve maintained a foot in both the social justice and the tech camps for many years now and have used this to drive the direction for our work in OpenOakland just like in my work at Urban Strategies Council.  I don’t buy solutionism and I don’t at all see OpenOakland as operating with such a mindset- we are not even close to drinking this kool aid.  I can see a future in which Oakland is a city that embraces the opportunities that cutting edge tech represents but also a city that nurtures it’s current residents and provides opportunities for our children to participate broadly in the new creative industry job boom.

There is one approach that has been adopted by FWD.us and SF.Citi that seems to have moved quickly from a tech organizing on issues that matter to society broadly into self serving protectionism with a push for policies and immigration reform to make it easier for tech companies to profit and to source foreign skilled labor to fuel the innovation workforce.  This is not a future I want to see bleeding over into Oakland.  It’s a future that blindly disregards the fact that our school systems are not producing a pipeline of young people of color who are ready for and interested in the tech/creative sector, but instead seeks short term, easy solutions to the massive labor shortage in the internet sector.  The actions of Mitch & Frieda Kapor and the new Kapor Center reflect the soul and spirit of Oakland- identify areas of opportunity that can result in a culture shift in the tech sector and a new energizing of young people of color to gain the skills and exposure needed to succeed in this sector.  Instead of focusing on short term profitability, think about how the structural inequities in our country can be changed to benefit our entire country, not just some Valley start-ups.

We are trying to demonstrate a better way forward with OpenOakland too.  We see the lack of accessibility and openness of local government as a barrier to active citizen engagement and a limiting factor in the attraction and sustaining of local businesses.  We see the need to reform how government acquires and implements technology as a root issue that must change in order for our governments to truly act as a platform to support strong, healthy cities and are working to change this in our city.  We are focused on civic technology that changes things for the better and solves real issues across the city. 

To put this in perspective let me lay out some of our work and the other work to come out of the Oaktown civic hacking efforts in the past two years:

  • OpenbudgetOakland.org – a site that allows all residents to understand their city budget in context for the first time ever. So clear and understandable that city officials were surprised at the numbers themselves.
  • Txt2Wrk – An app from the first Code for Oakland that helped connect reentry population to local jobs using a feature phone.
  • Councilmatic – almost ready to launch! This app tackles the single biggest barrier to residents being more engaged in their civic process- the impossibility of finding out what City Council is doing!
  • EarlyOakland.com – a simple way to help parents find free and low cost early child care and education
  • CityCamp Oakland – the first every unconference in Oakland that connected city officials with residents and technologists and smooth the path to more open government in future.
  • Oakland Answers – a collaboratively built city FAQ website that helps people find city information as easily as google lets you find street directions. Open source tech built by the people, for the people.

What we’re seeing is that technology can be used for good, it can be transformational, if you care about that.  We don’t want Oakland to end up being an eastern suburb of San Francisco, we want our city to further develop its own tech culture and to leverage the talent we have for the benefit of our city. I’ve been humbled and blown away by the generosity and community love that our OpenOakland crew have shown in this first year of our existence.  We have ~120 people signed up and 30 Oaklanders show up in city hall on a weekly basis- to work on projects where better tech can transform our city, our government and our communities. 

If you feel like doing A/B testing of email and web page design is not perhaps the most you can do with your skills and you love Oakland, you can join us and help make our city even better!  We need more help, we’re moving forward on our digital divide assessment, broad community engagement and much more- not just technology solutionism. That means there is a role for you to contribute and a place where people who dig open government and engaged communities can work and innovate together.  Come by one Tuesday night or just share your ideas with us!

Also read the full, excellent, rather long piece by George Packer on the New Yorker here.

State of the City from Living Cities

Living Cities has published a new report on the state of cities in the USA, it’s a worthwhile read if you’re already reading my blog. It’s not that long, really. It lays out a number of key struggles our cities are facing and suggests some innovative practices that show promise, but mostly paints a very daunting picture of our country’s future.  I just bought a home, for the first time, and that process of viewing, inspection and bidding highlighted the poor condition of so much of our housing stock built in the 1950-1954 boom.  We have an aging population and high unemployment and it seems to me that much of the housing stock in the east bay has some serious deferred maintenance. We don’t seem to be able to maintain our own homes to a high standard, just like we don’t seem to be able to maintain our cities, infrastructure and schools. 

the community development sector has failed to keep up with these enormous changes. Our systems for supporting national prosperity and individual economic opportunity were built for different times on outdated assumptions. Place-based efforts, while beneficial to some, are not sufficient to reaching the scale necessary to fix these broken systems. We cannot simply manage decline in cities – we must be on the cutting edge of these economic and social shifts and change how cities operate.

This paragraph stood out to me- the idea that we are managing decline in our cities rather than rebuilding our infrastructure for the future- take Oakland’s 84 year road paving cycle for example.

Isolated approaches to fixing our most intractable problems have not worked. There needs to be new, local, ‘civic infrastructure’ built around one table where cross-sector decision-makers come together to set ambitious goals, use data to transform systems and achieve better outcomes.

Having worked in a cross sector organization that does excellent work in forming and sustaining collaborations I see the focus on breaking down decision making silos as a key way to improve our government functioning and our community development efforts.  We’ve seen so many isolated efforts fail because the department only considered their own jurisdiction and mandate and failed to connect their work to those of connected agencies.  You don’t fix urban schools without improving safety and you don’t fund that without good businesses and housing as a base for your community- it all fits together and all must be tackled  together. Get better teachers and schools but don’t fix the juvenile justice system? Nice try. We need more cross sector and inter-agency collaboration and serious planning efforts that accept risks and support innovations that are not comfortable but work to improve our common good.

It is imperative that we build a new civic infrastructure that supports collaboration; that we develop a high performing public sector that provides leadership and resources more strategically

This is something I’m very focused on and feel constant frustration at the pace of this change- we need leaders in our cities who get these new issues, who understand the scale of change needed and who embrace better practice.  We need them to share lessons and failures while being more open to implementing good practices from other cities without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel on every issue in every city. We cannot afford to do things the old way- making unique programs and policies and systems that do the same thing in every city- we need to think more like the open source software community and copy and redeploy as much as we can- we can all build on what others have done and then give back into the pool of ideas, policies and tools to allow others to build on our work. Collaboratively as a country, working together to solve our big problems at a scale that we can fund.

View the full report on Living Cities website here.

The Value of Networks: NNIP

When we face change it’s a great time to step back and be reflective about the thing we’re struggling to change or the thing that has been changed for us.  It’s hard to abstract while we’re in the middle of things, when things are moving along nicely, our instinct is to just keep at “the work”.  This year a network I’ve been closely involved with changed significantly and it forced me to think about what matters, its value to me and it’s purpose more broadly.


Every year the members of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP: neighborhoodindicators.org) gather twice in different cities to share, learn, reconnect and struggle together with the tough issues of running community data organizations.  Almost twenty years old, this network is now 36 cities strong and boast university departments, think tanks, nonprofits, government agencies and collaborative mixes of these in each city.  I love the people who attend, their varied perspectives and the great work that inspires me to do better, do more and to implement good practices successful elsewhere in my work and my city.  To be honest these meetings (the conferences are self run and rather informal, and feature NO vendors anywhere!) are the highlight of my year, every year.


In 2013, due to a few factors we are only convening once. This is a major change from the seven years I’ve been involved and comes after I leave my three year term sitting on the national executive committee that helps to govern the network.  I’ve struggled with this departure from the norm and it has caused me to think a lot about what NNIP really is to me.  I’ve talked with others about these ideas but they do not represent a surveyed perspective nor broad agreement that I’m aware of.


Thinking over what is truly unique or valuable about NNIP yields this list for me:

·      No fluff sharing of projects, tech, failures and successes in other cities.

·      A dynamic mix of execs, researchers, technologists and academics.

·      Honest discussions about the pros and cons of systems, software, products and approaches.

·      Very honest discussions and thinking through business sustainability amongst peers who face similar struggles in other cities- providing a safe place given the lack of ‘competitors’ in the room.

·      A chance for junior staff to begin presenting their work, learning to communicate issues and data in public.

·      Broad awareness of who is an expert in certain issues nationally and a relationship that ensures they will respond to you when needed.

·      Connections in many cities to allow for effective referrals of inquiries that should be met by local experts.

·      Social connections to people you respect and appreciate who inspire you and also learn from your work.  Lots of humility.


Putting all of this together and stepping back from who we are and what we do as a network I’m faced with some discoveries.  Our network is a face to face entity. It exists almost entirely in person, in the same place at the same time.  The strong bonds that form are sustained on the sidelines between convenings but are really nurtured in person.  The attempts to foster online webinars and workgroups have come and gone every couple of years and always have flopped.  I think there are three reasons for this- firstly the fact that we all have other learning networks and webinar type options in our work. Secondly, we are very much a personal network that relies on good relationships, not remote web based presentations. Lastly I think this is because of the style of network support offered by the Urban Institute staff who do a great job running the convenings and supporting the network broadly.  When I consider the networks and collaborations that Urban Strategies Council supports, such as our Alameda County Community Asset Network, we put a huge amount of resources into staffing and supporting this kind of network.  The fact that our UI team have other, very demanding roles within their jobs suggests that our network would likely benefit from a configuration in which there are one or two dedicated people managing and supporting the NNIP network.  I don’t offer this as a criticism, but as a reflection on who we are, how we function, our value and our needs, painted against the competing obligations of regular researcher roles in a major institution.  It’s time for the NNIP to fully staff its coordination (with more great leadership from Kathy Pettit I hope!) and to ensure we understand our value to our members and support that to the fullest.


After abstracting our activities into a set of valued components and priorities it’s important to think through what you (or we) can do to ensure those strengths are sustained, our weaknesses either tackled or discarded and our network operates as best it can.  Moving to a single meeting per year has the very unfortunate effect of destabilizing the single biggest advantage of our network- the strong relationships within this field. In our twice yearly format you can miss one (say you have a baby, it happens) and only have a year gap between reconnecting with your peers and plugging back into the sharing and learning network.  In a yearly format, miss just one conference and you face a two year gap with no formal connection. It’s next to impossible to build up the typically strong relationships we see within NNIP in a yearly interaction and such a large gap ensures all newcomers will stay outsiders and strangers to the vast majority of seasoned members.


This is a serious weakness for us and my suggestion is that those budgeting and managing our network should do all they can to maintain our twice yearly format. It works. It has been successful in so many ways and the cost of cutting back is far greater than the savings of one less event to fund.  Sustaining a core and building networks is valuable work, we’ve exhibited this remarkably well and must continue this aspect of our work together.  I’m looking forward to our network assessment and the chance to objectively consider our future together, NNIP is a rare and wonderful thing and we need to be serious in maintaining and improving it!

A data-driven organization acquires, processes, and leverages data in a timely fashion to create efficiencies, iterate on and develop new products, and navigate the competitive landscape.

What we do every day. We have a long way to go before local government and nonprofits are even close to data driven!

From DJ Patil

Oakland Transparency Hearing

Yes you read it right, on June 25 we’re inviting you to join the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and OpenOakland for the 2013 Oakland Transparency Hearing!

The lineup for this hearing is pretty awesome, there will be a keynote from Tim O’Reilly on Government as a Platform along with these great speakers covering a wide range of open gov and transparency efforts relevant to our city:

Transparency 101Laurenellen McCann, Sunlight Foundation

The Problem with Transparency in California – Robb Korinke, California Forward

Innovations and EngagementAlissa Black, New America Foundation

Public Participation – Greg Greenway, Davenport Institute

Oakland InnovationsSteve Spiker, Nicole Neditch

The event is public and open to all, but please register on the eventbrite page so we can plan for the attendees as this is a collaborative meeting!

ReWrite Oakland: Real Collaborative Results

It’s the close of a great day for the 70+ people who gathered at Oakland’s Popuphood HQ in Frank Ogawa Plaza, we have much to show and much still to do, and we’ve learned some valuable lessons throughout the day.

And I’m writing this while Pi begins to play, reminding me that I do love and miss breakbeat dance music. Sidetrack.

Today was a refreshing example of genuine collaboration between a city and it’s people, along with an example of how events can surprise you. As part of the National Day of Civic Hacking (not this one), OpenOakland, Code for America and the City of Oakland hosted a writathon- not a hackathon- we always gotta do things different in Oaktown right!  We based this event on a prototype in Honolulu that we thought was very relevant to our needs in Oakland, open source doesn’t just apply to software, we can share our ideas, events as easily.   The task was to build a new website for our city that gave people easy to find answers to the common questions people have for city government.

And we did it. In one day. Bam. A new question and answer resource for all of Oakland. Presenting the beta version of Oakland Answers: http://answers.oaklandnet.com

Caveat- all the answers live now need to be vetted by city staff- this is all draft content!

So what? Try it. Treat it like google rather than a normal city website. Type in a keyword or your questions and we’ll give you back the best answer possible. That’s the idea. No searching department pages, scanning through PDFs or clicking in vain hope. We think you’ll appreciate it next time you need to find out something about the city.

So that’s a great achievement for 70 people who volunteered for the day, for the twenty or so city staff who joined in, but that’s not the best part. The best result from today is the fact that we built something as a city together– city staff helping, contributing and writing content alongside librarians, tech developers, designers, retirees and advocates.  This is what we’re working towards at OpenOakland- a city that slowly becomes more open to collaboration, open to deeper engagement and open to new ways of building and acquiring technology.

Yes we could built a new website in a hack day of independent developers, but what would be the outcome? What would it change? We need the support and buy-in from the city itself to build new tools together, and we got that support in a big way, so those of us from OpenOakland owe a big debt of thanks to Nicole Neditch who did a ton of heavy lifting to prepare for this event.  With the city being willing to be slightly more open (and yes, that means more vulnerable, and that’s not easy), we were able to leverage the ‘long tail of government’ – the experience, insights and expertise of our whole community.  We don’t underestimate the discomfort of others wanting to be more involved in city business- the human emotion of city staff that reacts to others suggesting that city websites need to be better- we all hate others downplaying our work, but today is not abut that at all.  We took advantage of the good work and example of others (Honolulu) and applied it in our local context to make something awesome and new.

While we were all at work defining questions the residents of Oakland gave us we realized there were some important opportunities that this new resource provided.  Giving the broader community write access to a city website for one day is a new endeavor- safe enough with a pre-beta site, but many people raised the idea that this would be a great tool for people to contribute too over time- in different settings, as things are happening across the city.  That seems like an obvious and excellent idea- whenever you try to access something perhaps difficult to find or complex to understand, or even simple but helpful, you can add a new question and answer to the system- share what you learn when you learn it.  Of course the city gets to review these new entries and approve or improve them, but this is a fantastic upgrade of the ‘one day to contribute’ model we adopted today.

Attending a community meeting and discover something useful about the city, its services or processes? Sign in and suggest a new solution!

For a city to offer its residents a way to collectively build on a community resource like this is pretty new, and it’s a good start to building trust and relationships with a community that has not generally felt trust in its government.  I’m grateful to all the people who came to join us today, to the great developers who did the behind the scenes work (Eddie, Nicole) and to the disruptors at Code for America (Tim, Jen, Cris, Sheila) who inspire and support us at OpenOakland!

At the end of the day, the national campaign is nice publicity, but at the ground level, in our cities, that is where America is changing!