Open Data in the Capitol- aka the anti-PDF and show us your data day.

Today I spent my day sitting in senate and assembly hearing rooms in our (rather beautiful) state capitol to testify in favor of two new bills that would make open data more impacting in California.

It’s a bit of a departure from my normal tech scene, but for the first time there are a slew of bills hitting the state and these are really important to the future of our state.

The first up was SB 272 from Senator Hertzberg, a piece of legislation that requires local governments to conduct and publish an inventory of their data systems and contents.  This one is big. I’m calling it the “Show us your data bill”.

Open data has been used by civic hackers to build countless new apps and to explain data in new ways, from apps that help inform people if they live in earthquake safe homes, to making city budgets understandable for the first time through to tools that help families find early childhood education and services easily, from the convenience of their phone.

SB272 is an important piece of our state infrastructure- while may cities do have open data policies, these take some time to implement and residents are left in the dark about what data their local government actually has, and how it’s collected.  This is important from a perspective of trust building for sure- knowing what data our police department collects is vitally important to understanding how that department works.  We’ve had impassioned fights in Oakland over data privacy yet most of this debate is happening without really know just how much and what kind of data our city really has. 

Data inventories will empower residents and will lead to better quality public records requests- right now, if you don’t know what is collected, you are forced to make vague, uncertain requests, never sure if the data exist.  With public data inventories, our communities will be able to make informed requests. This builds trust and improves efficiency.

SB 272 is also important as there is too much opacity in local government contracting; making visible the exact systems and software used in managing these data will provide valuable intelligence to the business community.

Lastly, it is also critical that we develop these inventories as technologists build ever more powerful and useful apps, we run into the issues of these apps stopping at your city border because the data don’t exist or aren’t obviously available in the next city over.  Knowing which data exist, and where, is a huge step forward in encouraging future innovation and making modern tools work for all of our residents.

Next up was AB169 from Assemblymember Mainschein, a small piece of legislation that helps define what “open” means and helps to firm up the standards in which data are published, when published.  Let’s call this one the “Kill All PDFs” Bill. It requires data or records to be published in machine readable, digital formats in ways that can be searched and indexed- this is good, but unfortunately a PDF can be searched by Google, so maybe this bill isn’t perfect from a geek’s perspective, but it does make data publishing standards much clear and more helpful for those of us using public data.  Perhaps as important, this bill requires data to be published in the original structure where possible- putting pressure on government staff to not refactor or redact data files unless legally necessary.

Both bills went through with unanimous support, off to the next stage of political machination.  I’m hopeful they will see sunlight in the end, they are important pieces of our future.  As this day wraps up, I’m left dwelling on this one thing- every issue heard today had a slew of hired lobbyists to represent the various interests- electric cars, solar systems, government contractors and more; I’ve been frustrated by the lack of movement and leadership at a state level in California regarding open data and now I realize something-

Open Data has no lobbyist. 

CityCamp Oakland in review

CityCamp Oakland in review

It’s been a month and a half since CityCamp Oakland hit the halls of Oakland and we’ve asked both our guests for their honest feedback as well as done some intensive debriefing amongst our team and members.  We realize that volunteer led events as well as those run by well paid professional teams can always get better and we intend to do just that- get better with every event we do.  There were…

View On WordPress

Open Data and Policing Reform

It’s not often you get to testify to one of your most admired leaders, and to do so side by side with another amazing community leader you’ve respected and appreciated from afar, but today I get to do both of these things and I’m pretty much in awe of how much of a privilege this is. It’s harder and harder to leave my girls at home and travel but for someone deep in the work of making cities better and more equitable at a local level, there are few chances to possibly influence change at a national level. And so I’m in Cincinnati where it’s below freezing, away from sunny California where yesterday I was drinking a good beer on the balcony with my wife complaining it was too warm. In January.

Today I’m testifying to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which includes Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, a man who bought me to tears last time I heard him speak. I don’t go in for hero worship, but Bryan would be on the short list.

What does a data geek and open government advocate have to say about the future of policing reforms in our country? My testimony is below…

Dear members of the task force and other community leaders,

I’m speaking today on behalf of Urban Strategies Council, a 28 year old social justice organization in Oakland, California where I have had the privilege of being the director of research and technology for almost eight and a half years. I am also here on behalf of OpenOakland, a civic innovation organization that I co-founded with Eddie Tejeda.

My work with the council has provided me with an opportunity to see how a lack of transparency in local government affects data-driven decision making. government technology, and community engagement. I’ve had the chance to work with many local agencies and community based organizations to help them unearth their valuable data, to analyse it and put it in context and then to help communicate the story and results of those data.

Traditionally the role of government has been perceived as a collector of data for compliance and reporting purposes, yet this is no longer sufficient in our view of 21st Century government. Government now needs to be pro-active across all agencies, especially those traditionally very closed and inaccessible. For many years we have been unearthing public data for research purposes and publishing these data openly for all to access- from data on local probationer populations, to crime reports and foreclosure filings. When we obtained both open and private data and published a report on the investor acquisitions of foreclosed homes, our work led to the creation of new laws to protect tenants and monitor housing purchases. When public data is put in the hands of communities, powerful things can happen.

We led an effort to crowd source the legislation to make open data the law in Oakland and now we have local agencies actively making data available to the public free of charge or restriction. This has led to breakthrough innovations such as OpenBudgetOakland.org which when shown to our city council led to disbelief- never before had decision makers seen their own budget in such clear context and the impact was powerful. Residents of our city were able to understand a complicated 16,000 line budget for the very first time- something made possible by opening data and by engaging the community in a respectful collaboration. Hackers, city staff and advocates working together.

Another local example of what happens when government opens up valuable data and collaborates includes our earthquake safety app (http:/softstory.openoakland.org) that helps inform low income renters if they are living in a building susceptible to collapse in the next big quake. This app was built by the community as open source and is now being deployed in a nearby city.

You’ll notice I’ve not talked about great policing collaboration examples. For good reason. Despite generating a near real time flow of crime reports, our local police departments and sheriffs have not been eager to jump into the world of open data, yet. Given the lack of trust in the Oakland Police Department, the need for real community policing and a dearth of accessible information about policing practices and incidents, Oakland is like most other US law enforcement agencies in its need to embrace open data, to develop respectful collaborations and engagement that leads to innovation.

Given the way communities of color are impacted by crime and violence, and the number of officer- involved shootings and assaults on officers, there is a very real and urgent opportunity for data to be leveraged for their benefit. Right now there are activist groups building databases of all officer- involved incidents and homicides;, these are duplicated efforts costing hundreds of hours of community time from projects such as Oakland’s Shine in Peace to http://killedbypolice.net/ and http://www.fatalencounters.org/. These projects should be taken as a leading indicator of a huge and growing demand for better transparency in our law enforcement agencies – citizens are clamouring for data to inform decision making, policy reform and civic action. When communities across the country need to collect news reports of officer- involved shootings and homicides, we’re missing something. When stop and frisk data are hidden from public view and not available for community research and analysis, we’re missing something. When arrest information only sees sunlight in the form of aggregate yearly reports, we’re missing something. That something will be realized when local law enforcement adopts a policy of open by default and begins publishing (with some obvious legal limitations) record level data of all crime reports, arrests, uses of force and weapon discharges along with stop and frisk incident data.

As individuals we do not trust that which we cannot see. Publishing data alone will not lead to better insights and operations, it is not a silver bullet to restoring community trust in police departments. However, in publishing these data on an ongoing basis, we make possible new, productive collaborations, new opportunities to engage with somewhat objective truths to work from and we allow for innovations that we could not predict. My recommendation to this task force: make open by default the new norm for our police forces, support the open publishing of these data, encourage standard data formats and support these agencies taking a leading role to learn together and to work towards common goals. Toward a future where transparency is no longer a laughable concept when it comes to law enforcement, where communities trust the information coming out of police databases and where residents can see and understand patterns and problems for themselves. Then we can have informed debates and start to remake policing in the USA in ways we agree on.

Whiteness is not an abstraction; its claim to dominance is fortified through daily acts which may not seem racist at all precisely because they are considered “normal.” But just as certain kinds of violence and inequality get established as “normal” through the proceedings that exonerate police of the lethal use of force against unarmed black people, so whiteness, or rather its claim to privilege, can be disestablished over time. This is why there must be a collective reflection on, and opposition to, the way whiteness takes hold of our ideas about whose lives matter. The norm of whiteness that supports both violence and inequality insinuates itself into the normal and the obvious. Understood as the sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit power to define the boundaries of kinship, community and nation, whiteness inflects all those frameworks within which certain lives are made to matter less than others.

Data rich, analysis poor

Oakland has a new School Superintendent, I like him, partly because of the following statement he dropped at a meeting of the Youth Ventures Joint Powers Authority recently- all the city and county heavy-hitters were there, discussing the possibility of hiring an out-of-state firm to do a data report on Oakland. There was much debate about the need to do this, the need for non-local data folks, the quality of local data, but Anton Wilson wonderfully cut through that: “Since I’ve come to Oakland I’ve seen a huge stream of data come across my desk. We don’t need more data, we’re not data poor- we’re analysis poor.”

I could have high five him for that statement. But that would have been awkward from across the room.

His point is one that I’ve harped on about for some time in Oaktown. We have troves of data, but barely a person doing thoughtful analysis of it to inform decision making, policy, evaluation (with the exception of some bigger programs that do get evaluated heavily).  A similar incident highlights this even more starkly. In front of the County board of supervisors, a department chief was utterly stumped when asked a seemingly simple, core metric about their department, after an injection of $75M dollars in the past couple of years for a new program.  I know that agency has tons of data, but I’m also aware of failed efforts to replace huge parts of their technology base and a stagnating effort to build a data team, so while I share some of the pain, ultimately it’s up to all senior leaders to take seriously and invest in people and systems to help make modern government agencies data smart if not fully data driven.

Part of our current problem is that the understanding of technology and data is very poor at the executive level and this often results in unwise mashing of technology and data folks with little thought to those being the right people with the right skills to actually understand your operations. I’ve talked often of the need to integrate data analysts and researchers into regular agency strategy and planning to they can respond as needs arise, but this is also a higher level problem- started when those responsible for departments do not themselves have enough data savvy or technology awareness to make good initial decisions.

If you’re one of the data geeks or tech folks in government, a good way for you to both increase your value and to help grow your organization is to add a layer of analysis or context when asked for simple data products. Instead of just giving the numbers of what you’re asked about, give some context to how that has changed, ways that measuring that thing have changed, gaps in your data that make that data fuzzy, or even better, ask those annoying questions like “What is this being used for? What decisions are you trying to make? Can I help you when it comes to digesting this information at a planning meeting?” You’ll be stunned at the number of exec level meetings with people saying ‘I don’t really know what these data mean” or “I wish we knew some context around these data”, but never bother to pass those issues down to you. Suggest you can both produce better products and also help with analysis if you are part of the process.

For leaders, humility and awareness of how much data and tech really drives the world is a powerful starting point. Look at what other progressive agencies are doing with performance management, accountability and data driven initiatives. Copy them. And perhaps most important, find a local ally who does know data driven strategies and technology management in their sleep and have them help you make better decisions. One last clue- buying business analytics software won’t help you, training your staff properly and building your capacity by hiring data and tech savvy staff will!

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!