Striving for better: Diversity in Civic Tech

There are many parts of my life where I’m really comfortable. I love talking about justice and social struggles, love talking about race, the reality of inequality and what it does to our society, human trafficking/sex slavery and the push back I get from pro-sex workers that this even matters. I’m also comfortable talking about diversity, the lack of it and how the tech sector and others need to ditch the status quo and it’s unjust implications. What I haven’t loved, haven’t been comfortable with, is people being critical of and even attacking an organization I‘ve led and helped built over the past two years. I’m uncomfortable because, despite some unloving offenses, those complaining have been largely right.

Most civic hack nights in Oakland’s city hall sees a wonderful balance of males and females all working on tech, engagement and design challenges to make our city a better place. Some weeks the balance shifts to more men, other weeks it’s female dominated. And I feel like this is something worth celebrating, being glad about. We’ve made real efforts to make sure men and women are included, encouraged to lead projects (not just do design- an early trend we identified and tackled) and to be part of our formative leadership team in strong numbers. But despite this one good thing, this rare gender balance in a tech sector full of macho bullshit, we’re still not doing enough, but we’re about to change that.

We’re way too white.

I’d love to deny it, but it’s real. Despite our co-founders being white and latino, and guys, our leadership team and our general membership is very much mismatched with the demographics of the city we serve. We’ve spent much of 2014 talking, listening, growing and building as an organization, and despite the intentions, despite the genuine desire for a fully inclusive organization, it hasn’t just happened. So we’re stepping up on this area. We say we’re lean, we’re adaptive, well that has to apply to all facets of our organization.

We declare a value of building with, not for (the people we seek to serve), and to us that also means that “us” must be all of us, not just those who’ve chosen to walk through the doors and get involved. So what are we doing? For starters, we’re making an intentional push for diversity in our leadership recruitment (about to launch). And we’re putting our money where our mouth is. We don’t have much funding yet, but in our first serious investment from Code for America, our main expense is a fantastic consulting firm who we’ve hired to help us develop strategies to ensure that our leadership, our advisory board and our membership becomes as diverse as our city.

We’ve asked our new partner to take on a layer of screening that will result in a more diverse candidate pool for us to pick from, and to work with us to do targeted outreach to local leaders who could play a role in our organization- people from a broader pool than our current reach generates. We’ve seen this as necessary- if the same group of people ask their friends to participate, we don’t stand a good chance of succeeding, of building a diverse leadership team. If our foundation isn’t solid, it won’t matter how good our apps are, we’ll never be “of the people, for the people” to get all patriotic and shit like that. While this partnership is our first big step, it won’t be our last, we know there’s a lot more hard work to do on this front.

As we roll into this brave new world of awkward moments and honest conversations about how we will get to who we want to be, I’m very proud of our current team and their efforts to move in this direction, to accept we’re not as diverse as we want nor as pro-active as we need to be. But we’re all prepared to do this, to learn, to be humbled and to grow, with the added strength, insights and trust that a really Oaklandish team will give us.

My invitation to others is twofold — join us, especially if you want to be part of something great, and also encourage us and give us constructive criticism along the way, but also forgive us if we’re not perfect, if we make mistakes. We give a shit. We are not cool with the status quo. We need you to help make this better.

Data: It’s all about people, not the data

I’m a data geek. I’ll own that. I love what data can do, what it can inform, what it can tell me.  I constantly find myself mentally connecting conversations I’m in and meetings I’m part of to the data that could best inform the discussion or the decisions. It’s a bit of a problem.

As our society and our government becomes slowly absorbed by the data deluge we’re now enabling, there is a righteous backlash from many that data isn’t what it’s all about, data are not more important than say, people. And this is a fair suggestion. Sometimes this is a valid and constructive statement – the point of analysis is not the data, the results or the visualization of those results, it’s what those data can do to inform decisions that will have a human impact that matters.  Where I get frustrated is with people loving to push back on the idea of using data pro-actively is when people argue that “this problem isn’t about data, it’s not something we need data for, we already know what’s happening”. I hate those statements.  They relay a level of arrogance that is not intentional but real.  Anytime someone already fully knows the nuance and scale of a problem, they better also have insights as to the solutions, otherwise what good has their knowledge and insight been to the people they care about helping?

This is another case of two sides acting as if only one side is important. And that is not something productive or effective for most social issues. It’s next to impossible to get executive buy in to change something with just experience and intuition, we don’t often see policy or investment decisions based on insight alone.  Likewise, we should not ever be making serious decisions or assumptions just based on data alone. That leads to decisions made lacking critical context and nuance and to simplistic technocratic solutions. Better to be pairing the data with the insights and experience of those living out those data.

Just as policies are often more successful when developed with the decision makers and implementers involved, so too should data driven decisions be constructed.  A great local example of this in action appeared in the release of our latest report focused on attendance problems in Oakland Unified Schools. Despite serious problems of chronic absenteeism across the district, Garfield Elementary is one of six schools in Oakland that have cut chronic absences by half or more. The Principal, Nima Tahai said “First, it’s data driven. You have to have the numbers in front of you, student names and down to the reasons for each absence… Then, school staff must engage in one-on-one work with families, reaching out to them to find out what is going on and talking to them about the importance of getting their kids to school. He went on to say that Garfield administrators even pick up kids to drive them to school if a family is stuck without transportation or a parent is ill.

This problem would never have been raised to the community’s attention without thoughtful analysis of very detailed data on every student in the district. Data revealed the scale of the problem, and then, in the hands of a facile administrator, were used to identify individual points of influence or action- each student in need of help.  The data alone mean just a nice report or a compliance document. When delivered in a form that can support action, these data become powerful elements of change. Data, people, action. That’s how government should be driving change, data driven, not data obsessed.

*First posted on Govloop.com

Calling all Innovators in Oakland (Government)

Looking for innovators and change-makers in Oakland’s City Hall

At OpenOakland we get to work with people inside city hall and across this great City. We see hard work, creativity and good things happening all over- what we don’t see is that creativity and innovation being recognized publicly, so we’re out to recognize good government. We’re announcing the first ever Oakland Civic Innovators Awards!

We’re looking for nominations from anyone who lives, works, plays or worships in Oakland- tell us about the great things you’ve seen in City government this year- have you worked with an awesomely innovative staff member, experienced thoughtful, genuine engagement on the behalf of a local agency or seen game changing creativity from people you used to just think of as bureaucrats? If so, tell us about it and we’ll be glad to recognize the good efforts that reflect not just the heart of public service and the untold stories of good government in Oakland.

We’ll be announcing the awardees at the 2015 CityCamp Oakland on January 10th, which means this is also an announcement that CityCampOak is back!