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.

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.

Code for America Brigade Captains

Today the inaugural Brigade Captains were announced as part of the Code for America Brigade program. I’m proud and nervous to be the first Captain of an Oakland brigade- Open Oakland. I think we may well have a co-captain very soon too. There’s simply so many things a CfA Brigade can achieve in Oakland and a lot of work to coordinate and plan it out.

The official version is here:

“Brigade is all about recognizing and supporting the volunteer efforts of civic minded technologists throughout the country who want to contribute to the civic web and code for America where they live. Our aim at Code for America is grow, strengthen, and connect the network of people involved in doing so. We have two mechanisms for doing that.

The Brigade Captains program is our structured, facilitated, ideal model for local brigades and brigade leadership. Captains are enlisted for a one year commitment to develop, publish, and execute a year-long plan for their cities based on our core activities. Captains are hold regular meetings of their brigades, host events in their cities, and share the stories of their accomplishments.”

If you have an interest in open government, open data, civic innovation and have skills to help us move this work in Oakland please join the Brigade site, then email openoakland@googlegroups.com to connect in with us- our first meeting will be next week. Brainstorming, intros, plans and projects. Beer too.

Launch post

Fledgling site for Open Oakand

Here’s the rest of the captains/brigades:

Come and Code for Oakland in 2012!

It’s on again! We’re helping run the second wonderful hackathon for Oaktown: called Building Our Civic Web.

The focus of this year’s hackathon is on building apps, hacking public data and building tools to support economic development in Oakland, improve civic engagement, improve digital education and literacy in our residents and provide tools to attract and sustain local business in the town.

We’ve all seen ways that new businesses, local communities and the city itself could be massively improved through the thoughtful, creative use of good new tech solutions right? This is the perfect opportunity to show how the awesome developer community in Oakland and around can contribute in a powerful way to the improving and sustaining of our city. Coders matter.

As a lead up to the main hackathon our wonderful volunteers are running a month-long series of focused listening sessions to share your ideas, brainstorm community needs and help shape what is built at the hackathon. We want to hear from small business owners, community activists, teachers, city staff, nonprofit leaders and people from across the city- your ideas may just spark a great new app or tool to make positive change in our city!

I hope you will join Oakland’s community of civically engaged developers, coders, designers, entrepreneurs and innovators as we re-imagine ways in which collaboration and technology can help shape, grow, and sustain the healthy future of our City.

We think sustainable communities are important, and software needs sustaining also, so this year we’ll feature the great apps built last year and check in with the teams on how they’ve struggled or succeeded in getting their work into heavy adoption. We’re doing this to get real about how we as a community can better support any new apps built and make sure good ideas get more than just recognition and prizes- they get used and change our community!

www.codeforoakland.org

Register now at http://codeforoakland2012.eventbrite.com/

Follow the action with #CodeforOakland

Barriers or Processes?

In the past couple of days I’ve had informative meetings with two high level city officials (separately) and both have progressed in a good direction until we come to a topic that has a potential legal implication for the city. At this point an idea that was moving along nicely hits what is perceived as a real barrier to implementation or change in an area of the city structure that needs improvement. As the opengov, gov2.0 and other shifts in understanding of government grow we are seeing more and more innovative, creative solutions to common problems, many of which are highlighted on the CivicCommons.org platform. These barriers that end all hope of change because of the legal nature of information release or the legal requirements to get a new method cleared seemed analogous to the barriers faced by agencies adopting new, agile, open technologies: one city takes the hit and does the grunt work to make the policy, implement the new tech and publish their journey for the world to see. Call it the Code for America effect. (On waking today I realize the CfA effect has already been claimed and is slightly different from what I’ve implied, so I’ll redub this the CivicCommons Effect, didn’t intend to steal someone else’s idea 😉 )

To my (naive) mind, this very same scenario is the death of many city innovations, changes and policy improvements:

  1. Great new idea for city.
  2. Plan for idea to be made real.
  3. Idea hits legal clearance or policy barrier, lawyers say too hard, not worth it.
  4. Idea dead.
  5. Change stalled, hope lost.
  6. Business as usual.

As I thought more about these perceived barriers I thought of the other nearby cities that have faced and solved these very same issues. And in each case it seems really clear to me that these issues present not as real barriers (hence insurmountable, undo-able, impossible) but merely as processes. And processes can be followed everywhere.

If one city attorney or county counsel decides something is risky, illegal, uncomfortable, should this be treated as a barrier with all the anticipated costs, struggle, blood, sweat and frustration as such a barrier should? What if the next city across has been through the same damn thing and come out with a working solution? To me the issue is then just a process, one to be followed, tweaked and adjusted to suit but still a process, and a process is not expensive, time consuming nor daunting.

It’s essentially applying an open source software model to government issues. I have a need, I’m stuck on something and have no budget to hire a consultant to build the fix/system for my issue. But if I can find an open sourced solution that someone else built to solve just this issue, I can just take their great work and tweak it to suit my local need, wallah (infer sexy french accent here), I now have a solution and no big capital investment.

Why should every city government treat the same issues as unique barriers? If one has pushed through a solution, why would we try to face the issue as a barrier? If we change our mode of thinking we are now viewing this issue simply as a process to follow. I’m not trying to simplify complex scenarios nor to undervalue thoughtful planning, but I don’t see how we can view the same problems as unique, over and over again. Take the hard work others have done before us, leverage it for our city and residents benefit, and do the same with out struggles and wins- publish our process successes and our common software solutions and share in the efficiencies and collaborations that can strengthen our governments and improve their operation.

To wit, this is exactly how I’m approaching our efforts to implement opendata in both the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda. San Francisco, New York and Chicago have done the hard work blazing a trail, now we have a great process to follow so we don’t have to do the same hard work as they did.

  1. Identify problem
  2. Search for existing solution
  3. Plug and play.

And I think that the more we talk about the processes and struggles to change, the more we all gain.