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.

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