Civic hacking is…

“Civic Hacking” is the awareness of a condition that is suboptimal in a neighborhood, community or place and the perception of one’s own ability to effect change on that condition. The apps are incidental.

A definition I dig. from Mark Headd.

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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.