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:

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!

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