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.

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Beyond compliance, beyond reports: Data for Action

First posted here.

A week ago the famous Napa region was shaken by a 6.0 scale earthquake resulting in serious damage to buildings, injuries and disruptions in services to a large area. This is something residents in the Bay Area have come to expect and we are all waiting for the next “big one”, overdue in most experts opinion.

The same week, our team launched a new app in response to the disaster.

Oakland is a city with a severe housing shortage, building anger towards gentrification and the unmeasured but very real displacement of low income residents who have called this city home for decades.  It is also home to 1,378 large apartment buildings that are at varying risks of collapse in a quake centered closer to Oakland. The City of Oakland and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) have studied this issue and over half these buildings have been screened – but over 550 remain to be screened for risk.  Many homes have been found to be safe, while 609 buildings (home to thousands of residents in apartments) have been found to be as serious risk – called potential Soft Story buildings – they have a large open ground level such as storage or garages that will potentially collapse in a quake- rendering those homes uninhabitable – an instant loss of thousands of affordable housing units protected under rent control – any housing units built to replace them will surely not be affordable, resulting in very rapid push out of poorer residents.

So why do we civic hackers care about this? It’s a matter of equity and a matter of many residents without good access to information relevant to their living situation- without information, no-one can act. Unfortunately, the common practice in government is to collect information and store it neatly in a report that floats around city hall as a PDF. The data live on a server somewhere, called on only when needed. We greatly respect the proactive work the City and ABAG have done in the screening efforts, however there remains a large number of homes unscreened and there are still thousands of renters with no idea of their risk- either through damage and injury or through displacement after the quake- as a result of rent increases applied by landlords passing on retrofitting costs – Oakland’s rent control policy sadly does not clarify whether seismic retrofitting costs are borne by the landlord or tenant or both.

Some months ago we convinced ABAG and the City of Oakland to publish the data from these surveys – a complicated inventory because of the changing status of buildings as they are screened and retrofitted.  We had been planning to build a new app that would raise awareness of this issue to spur action – both for tenant rights groups and for the city to determine a policy for handling these costs and for ensuring homes in Oakland are safe for residents. After the quake we realised it was an important moment to raise this issue – so we sprinted to release a new app that helps renters and homeowners see the status of their building: http://softstory.openoakland.org.  

Our approach is to build tools that puts information in the hands of the public in a way they can act on it. In this case, the formal report is a good document, but it serves policy makers only, it does not inform nor empower those living in these homes.  This simple app lets any resident see how their building is rated – as exempt and not a soft story building, as retrofitted and safe or as potentially soft-story and at risk in a big quake.  

We’ve advocated for open data with local governments for this very reason (and others) – data can be used to fill up reports with snippets and summaries that help decision makers, but there should be a default to open with all data that has no legal reason to be protected – this information, in the hands of those actually affected by it can do radically more than if it were still sitting on a government hard drive somewhere in city hall!

Open Data Day in Oakland! it’s official baby.

 At City Council on Tues 19th, Oakland officially declares Saturday 23rd, 2013 to be recognized as Open Data Day! Wahooo!

This is a great step for our city to be officially recognizing the importance of a number of things we’ve been pushing and supporting for some time. The resolution (linked below) recognizes:

 https://docs.google.com/file/d/1fAkQ0dkbLLpdKEfxjfzP_elKkoqtz74v_RpW2q3rzuiWhFzz2voUNiBhmYM6/edit?usp=sharing

Full resolution text below, linking to a PDF is just too ironic for an open data win! Speaking of such, anyone down to work on getting all city notices out of PDF and into machine readable text? Yes, then join us!

RESOLUTION RECOGNIZING FEBRUARY 23, 2013 AS OPEN DATA DAY IN OAKLAND,
CALIFORNIA

WHEREAS, Open Data represents the idea that information such as government databases should be
easily and freely available to everyone to use and republish without restrictions; and

WHEREAS, Open Data increases transparency, access to public information, and improves
coordination and efficiencies among agencies and partner organizations; and

WHEREAS, access to public information promotes a higher level of civic engagement and allows
citizens to provide valuable feedback to government officials regarding local issues; and

WHEREAS, this month Oakland has formally announced the launch of its open data platform
“data.oaklandnet.com,” that will serve as the central repository of the City of Oakland’s public data, such as
data on crime, public works, public facilities, and spatial data, allowing all users to freely access, visualize
and download City data, enabling public scrutiny and empowering the creativity of civic-minded software
developers; and

WHEREAS, Oakland was honored to be selected as one of only ten cities in America to participate in
the 2013 Code for America (CFA) program, where three CFA fellows will work with the City to identify web-
based solutions to break down cumbersome bureaucratic processes and emerge with better systems that will
help cut costs, increase efficiency, and provide better service to the public; and

WHEREAS, Open Data activists have recently founded the civic innovation organization Open Oakland
– a Code for America Brigade, which meets every Tuesday evening in City Hall, bringing together coders,
designers, “data geeks,” journalists, and city staff to collaborate on solutions to improve Oakland’s service
delivery to all citizens of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, on December 1, 2012 Open Oakland produced the first ever “CityCamp Oakland,” inside
city hall, where over 100 stakeholders came together to discuss solutions to improve Oakland; and

WHEREAS, Oakland recently launched a community engagement web site called
“EngageOakland.com,” to encourage community ideas, feedback and suggestions to help shape, grow and
sustain the healthy future of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, “February 23, 2013 is International Data Day,” a day in which citizens around the world
will gather to access Open Data, write applications, create visualizations, publish analyses, and encourage the
adoption of open data policies at the local, regional and national government levels; and

2

WHEREAS, on February 23, 2013 at Oakland’s 81st Avenue Branch Library, Open Oakland, in honor
of International Open Data Day, will host a day of “hacking” public data and building data visualization tools to
help explain data and make stronger community-government connections; therefore be it

RESOLVED: That the City Council hereby declares February 23, 2013 as Open Data Day in the City
of Oakland; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED: That in honor of International Open Data Day the City Council hereby
recognizes and salutes Open Oakland founders Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejada; Oakland’s 2013 Code For
America Fellows Richa Agarwal, Cris Cristina and Sheila Dugan, and Oakland’s Code for America sponsors:
The Akonadi Foundation, The William H. Donner Foundation, The Robert A.D. Schwartz Fund, The Mitchell
Kapor Foundation, Accela and Pandora, for their service to the City of Oakland and its citizens.

Opening Government: Oakland’s First CityCamp

I recently co-founded an organization called OpenOakland with former Code for America fellow Eddie Tejeda.  One of our passions was that we both believe that government can and should be much more than a vending machine. Those of us in OpenOakland (all 20+ volunteers) dig the idea of government as a platform: a platform that supports safe communities, job growth, excellent schools, strategic business development, and innovation. When our government operates more collaboratively and genuinely engages with our communities (as opposed to acting as a barrier), it facilitates so much more that can benefit our communities.  Too many, this is a new concept, but we believe that it matters how we perceive our governments.  It’s no secret that current local governments have a ton of changing to do, but it’s unlikely that these changes will come about swiftly without all of us being involved and engaged and supporting our government staff and leaders to make these changes.

Instead of lamenting from the sidelines, how can we support this change?  Several years ago some brilliant people created an opensource brand called CityCamp– the idea was that concerned citizens, technologists and government never really get the chance to get together, share successes, be exposed to new, innovative technology, share struggles and openly converse and build relationships with no hidden agendas and with no vendor pitches.  For OpenOakland, running a CityCamp was a clear way for us to move our mission forward-  we exist to support open, agile and engaged government.  So on December 1st we held the first ever CityCamp Oakland, inside city hall and actually based in council chambers.  We welcomed 121 local technology professionals, government staff from almost every city department and community members to a full day’s unconference.

As an unconference, a CityCamp gives those attending the opportunity to set the agenda themselves, we asked registered guests to suggest ideas on a new platform the City has adopted recently called EngageOakland.com.  This approach not only gives people a sense of empowerment that they can create the sessions they want to lead or participate in, it also gives us and our attendees a great way to continue conversations beyond the day using the same web platform for discussion and sharing.  We helped seed the ideas with a few topics of interest to OpenOakland members and started the day with over 30 ideas to consider.  The topics were refined through attendees voting on each idea- in the end we held 16 different sessions throughout city hall.

The session topics covered issues from open data, a GIS/spatial roundtable discussion, pubic safety data, freedom of information (FOIA) requests, civics 101, diversity and the digital divide and Oaklandwiki.org (a local wiki built by OpenOakland to allow Oaklanders to tell their own stories about their community).  While there is a level of initial discomfort for many people, this open format of event does lend itself to unpredictable conversations that could never happen in other settings and also supports a level of openness and candidness that is both rare and valuable.  Can you think of another setting where city staff would spend an hour discussing the limitations and issues of publicly available crime data or the problems in the current FOIA process?  With no unspoken agenda, no forced engagement requirement that town hall meetings carry and no threat of repercussion, we all participated in some rich conversations and came away inspired and encouraged.

Some take-aways were significant and some were minor, but all were things that are only possible in a safe, respectful environment that this event helped to create. Take for example the city staffer who learned that saving data as a PDF is actually a barrier to others being able to easily access and make use of the data, that the habit they considered as helpful was not, and by saving as raw data formats they could enable others to also use these data.  This is no earth changing lesson, but it illustrates the value in communication and of sharing frustrations without adopting a blaming or accusatory approach.

This event demonstrated how powerful communication and open engagement really are, and the attendees illustrated to those of us in the Open Government movement just how important it is that we can provide more environments like this to allow for better collaboration in future.  The real test of any social or civic change is that of time, and so it remains to be seen how lasting the impacts of this CityCamp will be.  I’m optimistic that we are on the right track here, that positive, supportive approaches can help to transform our city governments into the 21st century institutions we need them to be.  One city staffer wrote that “We can look forward to a whole new push in communications, data, transparency, ease of access because of these people’s (OpenOakland) efforts to work, partner with us and join in to the larger civic conversation”.  We even have excited city staff wanting to take part in OpenOakland now- some initial proof that the concept of a Code for America Brigade really does meet a local need!

Some of the guests were dubious about this format and carried some serious distrust of city staff into the day.  As someone who has tussled with the city publicly I could sympathize with them, however we were stunned to see the impact of open conversations with city staff as peers on some of these hard edged residents.  I truly believe that these type of events can go a long way to healing some of our past wounds and to opening up doors to not only better collaboration, but to informed engagement on our part.  The typical closed door, gatekeeper approach maintained by many departments does nothing to encourage goodwill or trust. It does in fact encourage distrust and doubt about the intentions and capabilities of that office which cannot have any positive results for either the agency or the public it serves.  From an outside perspective we hear about all the dumb, corrupt things that city officials do, but when we talk in person about things we have a common interest in I find my respect for city staff increases as I learn about more of the great things they are doing or are trying to do.

One of the city staff in attendance provided this perspective on the civic hacker community:
“they are our new age city advocates – just like our tried and true volunteers who wear vests and bring shovels, these new style digital folks, use an iPad, the cloud and zeros & ones to engage the citizenry, help govt get the word out, make things easier- faster-better! They are committed to Oakland, and are generous with their skills and amazing abilities and know how”.

If you think that this kind of event would benefit your city I’d encourage you to consider hosting one- opensource is not just a concept that promotes “free” software, it applies to ideas too- as an opensource idea, anyone is free to hold a CityCamp and to reuse this brand and this idea- after all, cities are one of the earliest examples of us sharing communally- we share our libraries and roads, why not share great ideas too!  This is one of the most powerful concepts in urban society- if an idea or a project works in one place, why not reuse it elsewhere? This is the core of opensource technology and it’s the core of OpenOakland also. But that’s another story.

Original story posted here: sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2013/01/11/opening-government-oaklands-first-citycamp/

They are our new age city advocates – just like our tried and true volunteers who wear vests and bring shovels, these new style digital folks, use an iPad, the cloud and zeros & ones to engage the citizenry, help govt get the word out, make things easier- faster-better! They are committed to Oakland, and are generous with their skills and amazing abilities and know how.

A City Staffer and attendee of CityCamp Oakland talking about OpenOakland!

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:

Data Collection Community Style

I had the chance to see a preview today of the Detroit team’s app called LocalData today- part of the Code for America program.  Once again it’s very exciting to see what a team of outside designers, technologists, planners and data geeks can do in the right environment and with the right pretext. For me this is a liberating and exciting trend. Having come up with ways to do the exact same thing in my work I’m painfully aware of how clunky and onerous it is to set up the tools to conduct and manage and publish survey data- our city has been surveyed to death and the results are typically in the filing cabinets of nonprofits and government departments. useless.

Take a quick look at the video showing what LocalData is and does and read on..

LocalData Demo by Code for America from CfA Detroit on Vimeo.

These kinds of newly developed tools would have made a huge difference in the development and implementation of our last major community survey project with a team of high schoolers from Youth UpRising in East Oakland (full article here).

Typically if a community group, organizing group or public agency want’s to collect data they need to call some experts. And we don’t come cheap typically. When we started this project the ask was to help their youth survey their community, so we helped them to identify the focus- park conditions and safety, property conditions and healthy food availability.

Paper sucks, in most instances. We ended up choosing to purchase some discounted Trimble Juno GPS units and got donated ArcPad software from ESRi along with ArcGIS Mobile that came with our server licenses. At the time (mid 2010) the new Mobile software was terrible, super unstable on any setup we tried, bugs the development team couldn’t solve, so out went the more elegant interface and in went an ArcPad project. Trouble is no-one else on our team had had the joy of working with this product before, so fun for me… The devices were loaded with all the parcel data for their community and a bunch of survey screens to gather condition data- we copied a property survey done in another major city to have some form of data standard in the end. Let me just add that even for a seasoned GISP the learning curve and setup time for this app is not small or pretty.

The units froze in the field, crashed, lost data and all kinds of fun that frustrated the students and added time and cost to managing the project. I don’t think we had more than three students actually like using the device/app. But we got out data for the parks and for every property in the tract. 1,000 parcels surveyed. Every park in East Oakland surveyed (there we used a survey template from a HEAL group in Richmond to again try to get some comparable data in our region). But all the data had to be managed, processed and mapped by our team of researchers.

The finished poster of the project is below. The photos we had to take later with a real camera as the Juno devices would only provide ArcPad with a 160×120 image, awesome, that’s like 0.01 megapixels?? Another reason why a smartphone solution just kills it. Once we finished a friend of ours who is a java guru suggested next time we get a Java app built for a smartphone, faster and cheaper. This is where the Code for America approach is powerful. Most small nonprofits don’t have a budget for app developers and we have a hard time convincing managers to fund app/automation development up front to produce a reusable product that saves serious time later and can be reused elsewhere freely.  So we’re looking forward to implementing this new tool in Oakland and the east bay, especially on a full open stack with PostGIS! But we’ll still need funding to help make this happen 😉

Housing conditions

Oh, and as we believe strongly in open data this project’s data IS available in shapefile, excel or csv.

To see more about this great CfA project, to copy their code and more, hit up:

http://golocaldata.com/

Code for America in Oaktown: The OpenOakland Brigade!

Today we’re launching the official Oakland Brigade: OpenOakland.

If you’re new to Code for America then you’ve been missing out. If you know them, you may not yet know about the Brigade teams. This is the start of a new brigade to create and redeploy civic innovations, liberate public data, spur innovation within government and bring the excitement of opensource tech to the east bay community!

What we’re looking for is a core group of software developers, engineers, designers and data hounds who see the power of open tech to solve civic issues in Oaktown. We’ll be setting up some goals for the next 12 months, and we need creative people to help lift up tech in our city and showcase the ways opengov can really transform this town. The expectations on Brigade members aren’t heavy, but we will need consistent efforts and communication- wasting our spare time is wack.

We’ll be supporting civic tech events, hackathons, government forums and more and will be meeting regularly to plan, scheme and develop key tools to bring civic change.

Our first challenge as a Brigade is to stand up CKAN– an opensource OPENDATA platform. We need to show the City of Oakland that this can be built in and for our community. We’ll also be using this platform as the data repo for the next Code for Oakland hackathon!

If you want to be a part of this, or just hit the first meeting to see if it fits your life then join the CfA Brigade here: http://brigade.codeforamerica.org/brigades/54

Email the group: openoakland at googlegroups.com

Hit me @spjika or @openoakland to connect!

This will be fun.

This will be disruptive.

This will bring Oakland closer to truly Open Government, Open Data and innovation by default!

We will have beer at Brigade meetings.

Code for America in Oaktown?

Today the City of Oakland met with Code for America to learn more about the fellowship and how it could benefit our town. We had representatives from the Mayor’s office, the new deputy Administrator, city council and ourselves. There was real excitement from the city folks about this partnership, and a very sure commitment from leadership that the city was serious about this possibility and clearly understood the benefits we stand to reap from being part of Code for America in 2013. This was for the first time a group of senior leaders who were willing to stick out their necks and allow for innovation in city hall. There was a clear understanding of many impediments our city faces to improving service delivery, being a more open and engaged city, removing barriers and blockages to effective service delivery and to allowing new technology to be a spur for process changes.

I’m personally very excited about this effort. Our city has faced numerous real challenges in the past year and there seemed to be no coordinated leadership to effectively use technology to improve our city and no chance city hall would get it together to present a cohesive, thought out application for CfA. But they’re on it. Giddy would be appropriate. I went in hoping it wouldn’t be CfA needing to sell itself to the city and was very happy to see the city staff and leaders being gung-ho to start this relationship and to become part of this dynamic, powerful network that CfA represents.

The idea pitched by the city resonates with my experience working in and with the city.  But I’m not going to steal anyone’s thunder by publishing what it was- that honor needs to remain with the people who actually formed the idea (and dealt with my constant stream of encouragement and nagging to become a CfA city). Combined with a very serious plan to move an OpenData policy through city council, this represents some really positive changes for our town. I’ve been open about poor decisions and bad tech in the past but I’m going to be even more vocal about good decisions and people trying to innovate and take risks rather than do the same ol thing the same ol way that never worked in the first place.

Let’s go Oakland! (Yes I just watched Moneyball and nearly shed a tear hearing that chant as Beane walked back into the stadium on the 20th game of the streak.)