A new era for OpenOakland (burnout in #civictech)


Three and a half years, a dozen apps, some new laws, hundreds of hack nights, ten big public events and many new friends across the country. OpenOakland has been a huge part of my life since Eddie Tejeda and I decided our city needed us to do something, and it’s a part of my life that I’m stepping back from, with huge sadness, much love and much hope that the people I’m leaving it to will do new, great things with this vehicle for civic action we’ve built together.

As of May 30, both Eddie and myself are stepping down and we’ll no longer be leading this organization. We’ll always have pride in being the co-founders of an Oakland made creation that has seen impact across the United States of America and inspired others across the world, but we’re at a point where we both need space in our lives that isn’t possible with paying jobs and leading a civic organization. Not anymore at least.

I’ve balanced my family (three little girls), my marriage and my love for Oakland and for what we’ve made through OpenOakland, but it’s become harder to put in the time needed to really grown and develop and organization at this phase- we need to figure out our business model, raise funds, build a board and keep producing apps, advocacy and events, whilst supporting our volunteer base (love y’all). I’m aware that I’ve sacrificed much but I’ve loved doing so. But I need space for myself, space to get physically fit again, space to enjoy being a dad and not compromising weekends with my kids for retreats or hack days, and space to enjoy being a husband and not having “all those evening events”. My wife has supported me in this work for a long time, but we’ve also agreed to accountability- we’ve blown through a couple of dates we set for me to step out if it wasn’t clear there was a fundable role to take on, and my wife was gracious in that, thank you, but now it is time.

This is a hard choice, I’ve shed tears over it (I may not empathize well but I do have the feels) and I’m a bit stunned by the idea of not having an org to run, things to build, people to support, but I’ve got ideas brewing and am looking forward to the space to nurture them. I’d also love to be serving more in different ways, maybe with our church, maybe with protest movements, I’m not really sure yet.

Being part of this, maybe even being a leader in the open government movement, has been wonderful, and I’m not opting out all the way, I still think this stuff matters greatly. I’ve gotten to become friends with people I admired previously and that’s a special thing. People like Jen Pahlka, Noel Hidalgo, Derek Eder, Luke Fretwell, Dan O’Neill, Tim O’Reilly, Harlan Weber, Bill Bushey, Mjumbe Poe and many more- you all have inspired me, challenged me and pushed me to keep moving toward a vision of a better world, a better Oakland.

Our executive team at OpenOakland has a lot to take on now with both founders stepping down, but I’ve realized this past year that our team is truly amazing; their dedication, passion, creativity and ingenuity are really just incredible, and I have faith in them to guide this organization forward, even if that’s in a different direction than the one we set out on- go for it!

I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not disengaging from the civic tech world. I’ve committed to helping the brigade movement figure out how to sustain and grow, and I’ve got ideas for Oakland too. But in the near future I’ll be making sure OpenOakland has a smooth transition and then just being a social justice researcher and advocate, husband, dad, and friend for a while.

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.

Getting Quake Safe in Oakland

Our new app helps Oaklanders get Earthquake Safe!

Oakland has almost 610 homes at risk of collapse or serious damage in the next earthquake we will experience! These homes, called “soft-story” buildings are multi-unit, wood-frame, residential buildings with a first story that lacks adequate strength or stiffness to prevent leaning or collapse in an earthquake. These buildings pose a safety risk to tenants and occupants, a financial risk to owners and risk to the recovery of the City and region.

Today we are launching a new OpenOakland web and mobile app that will help inform and prepare Oakland renters and homeowners living in these buildings at risk of earthquake damage. The new app: SoftStory.OpenOakland.org provides Oaklanders with a fast, easy way to see if their home has been evaluated as a potential Soft Story building and is at increased risk in an earthquake.

The stats:

609: multi-unit buildings assessed to be at risk in Oakland

238: buildings have been assessed and found to have been retrofitted or to be exempt.

531: buildings are soft story types but have not had complete screenings yet.

1378: total soft story buildings in Oakland


This new app relies on data from a screening of potential soft story buildings undertaken by the City of Oakland and data analyzed by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Owners and renters can see if their home is is considered at risk or has already been retrofitted, and learn about the risks to soft-story buildings in a serious earthquake, an event that is once again on people’s minds after last week’s magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Napa.


We’re launching this app as a prototype with short notice as we believe this information is critical for Oaklanders at this time.  The app was built with the support of ABAG and the City of Oakland and had technical support provided by Code for America.  Once again, where local government is increasingly transparent, where data is open and in open formats, our community can build new tools to help inform and empower residents.

To see if your building is at risk visit:SoftStory.OpenOakland.org

Do Oakland’s Civic Apps work for Oaklanders?

If that’s the type of question that gets you thinking, we want you!

OpenOakland creates digital tools to increase access to public information, to help Oaklanders engage more effectively with local government and with each other. We rely on the contributions and insights of Oaklanders with a variety of skills and occupations, not just tech geeks.  One of our values is to design and build with rather than for people: collaborating with the communities we aim to serve.

We are forming a Civic User Testing program, to build better tools with the feedback, perspectives and new ideas of their intended users. If you have a desire to build new tools with Oaklanders, if you’re a UX professional or if you want to help build the first user testing program in Oakland’s civic space we invite you to join us on Tuesday July 15th as we plan out this new project.

We’ll be using the work of Smarter Chicago as a template to hack for use in our own city- the goals for tomorrow night will be to:

  • Develop a plan of action;
  • Select projects for user testing;
  • Create a framework of priorities, criteria for participants.

So please join us in City Hall at 6:30pm on the 15th (yes tomorrow). Pizza and hacker fun guaranteed. Please RSVP for catering purposes.

My White House blog for Champions of Change

This is my official blog post for the White House website as part of the Champions of Change award I received at the White House today!

** Cross posted from: http://www.whitehouse.gov/champions/blog

I’m an immigrant. I may not look like it, but I came to the USA for love and I’ve grown to seriously love this country in spite of its flaws. I’ve been blessed to work for a social justice organization (Urban Strategies Council) in Oakland, California, and have loved serving the city and its residents.  I’ve devoted myself to helping make data-driven decisions a reality but have realized the parallel need for more civic engagement on behalf of our city and our residents. I’m also a tech geek and have benefited from proximity to the amazing people of the Bay Area tech community.

Despite all the great efforts of many community-based organizations and government agencies, we haven’t made much of a dent in poverty and inequity in the Bay Area. My reaction to this failure is that we must do things differently and do them better if we want to see social change. A big piece of this change is that our cities must become more open, more engaged, and more agile.  At the core of so much failure is the way we strategically use (or don’t use) data and technology in local government.

Being part of the civic innovation community has been an amazing and humbling experience. It has taught me that there are always others with ideas as good or better than my own. The diverse members of OpenOakland, our volunteer organization that I co-founded with Eddie Tejeda in 2012, represent a broad group of technologists, activists, researchers, designers, and residents who believe that our city can and must be better. We’re working to build better interfaces to government that make interaction with government simple and painless. We’re leading the way with effective public-private partnerships and with collaborations that gently move our government to a more accessible, more agile, future.

Great work has been done in other cities to make governments more open and  effective and I’ve shamelessly sought to bring those great practices home to Oakland. I’m not the most creative person in the world. I’ve been called an innovator but really I just find great solutions that others have invented and apply them to our local problems. This is the heart of civic hacking for me: building new solutions and processes to replace broken ones, sharing our lessons and our successes and allowing others to benefit from our knowledge, failures, and shared technology.  The way open-source technology is created lends itself incredibly well to the way we recreate our cities — openly, collaboratively, and for the good of all.

Through OpenOakland we’ve begun work reshaping civic engagement through our CityCamp Oakland and supported civic hacking efforts with our Open Data Day and Code for Oakland Hackathons. More recently we held an incredible collaborative event called ReWrite Oakland as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking where over 70 people worked together to build something new and creative for our city.  We’re also publishing open data for our community and we meet every week for hack nights- hacking to improve our government and our democracy from inside city hall!

I’m proud to be part of the Code For America family and to have such a strong network of leaders and doers across the country who are working to transform government to be truly by the people, for the people. We need to restore trust in government and respect for public service — to create a strong platform on which to build our future. I think we’re slowly moving the needle on this in Oakland.

Here’s some White House ceremony cheesiness from today…