Oakland’s City Council Tech to upgrade from 1997 software

To get an idea of how badly Oakland needs to upgrade it’s digital infrastructure read this one line from the staff report today:

“Legistar 4.8 has not been upgraded since purchase in 1997 & has reached the limits”

Limits in this case being the massive limitations of the current technology to support better civic engagement and discussion and no ability for our community to access the critical data held in the legislative system in Oakland.
There are many big changes desperately needed in our city’s tech stack and this is one long overdue. Our ancient legislation software was the reason Miguel and his crew struggled so hard to complete the build-out of our Councilmatic system, however with this big upgrade, we’ll be using a similar system to other major cities which means both improved user facing functionality as well as a much easier deployment of a more robust Councilmatic system that has been tailored for this version by folks in Phily & Chicago.

This upgrade hit the city Finance Committee today, we’ve been waiting for over two years so it’s exciting that this finally gets approved. While the software upgrade itself is an important step for our city, more important was witnessing the ways our staff and elected officials have adapted their thinking about technology, data, code and procurement.  Two years ago there was nothing to brag about, not much to be proud of in our cities use of technology and our law making. Today saw what I think was a pivotal moment for our city. Curious? This gets geeky fast, sorry…

It turns out that there is something in addition to the basic software the vendor, Granicus, can offer- an API – if you’re not a tech geek, this essentially means a robot (code, not real) that takes in requests form various people, programs, companies and dishes out the information requested in digital form.  In this case, the API is something Granicus has built but has not made available to cities that have not required access to it- almost noone to date (NYC is just now struggling to get this sorted out and seems to be on the right track).  Councilmember Schaaf halted before approving the purchase and asked the committee to require that Granicus provide us with this API as part of the contract requirements. Noone in Oakland has ever unbundled the contracted software from the date before (aside form the unintentional effort with SeeClickFix that came with an API we didn’t need to request).
This means that we get a new legislative publishing and video streaming system, but we also get direct access to all the data in this system- machine readable data that allows local hackers and engineers to build alert systems on specific issues and neighborhoods, custom tools to help people stay informed about what our government is doing and, well, anything you may want to do with full access to the data about our decision making and public meeting track records- voting decisions, law sponsoring and more. Stuff civic geeks dream of.
After the meeting I emailed LaTonda Simmons, our City Clerk who is the manager of this whole system to thank her for moving this and making it possible to unlock this data.  I was concerned the lack of specificity about the API being public would somehow bite us in the ass, I was wrong.  Her response was encouraging- folks in city hall are listening and it turns out that geeks can make a difference.

Hi Spike – I spoke to Granicus immediately after to Finance.  They reconfirmed they will turn on API.   And yes, your feedback and that of many others will be important in this process.  More to come and thank you for your support also.  I must add that this wouldn’t have been possible without Bryan making it move.  Looking forward to the next CityCamp event.  Chat soon.

-= LaTonda S.

People in the city are really starting to get this stuff and it’s gonna be awesome as it becomes the norm- less bundling of contracted software with the data etc. And thanks to our new CIO Bryan Sastokas for starting to make things happen!
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Info on the staff report here.
Oakland’s current system for council info is here.
Side note:
Also on this committee’s agenda was an awesome proposal to increase and make permanent a number of deeper engagement efforts around the city budget that the Budget Advisory Committee proposed.