Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejeda sharing OpenOakland’s work at East Bay Mini Maker Faire.
Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejeda sharing OpenOakland’s work at East Bay Mini Maker Faire.
How we’re Coding for America in Oakland! (Source: https://www.youtube.com/)
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…
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:
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.
It took me a long time to come down from the excitement driven high that was Code for Oakland, our second communty based hackathon in Oaktown designed to build our civic web. I’m refreshed, excited, motivated and optimistic about the direction of tech and civic innovation and engagement in the east bay and have many great people to thank for helping make this event rock.
I want to briefly share some stories of the event and to lay out some of the highlights and things that really stood out during the day.
First, it’s important to reiterate that this is a community supported hackathon, kinda like KPFA- community supported radio. We had some great support from local organizations through financial donations to help make it possible and without them the event could not have happened, so thanks to:
Code for America
The Oakland Tribune
Urban Strategies Council
The Kapor Foundation
The City of Oakland
With almost 150 people through the doors this was bigger and more intense than last year’s event. As a data geek I’m looking forward to analysing the data on ticket sales v no-shows in light of our experiment using the pay what you want model.
I’m excited that we had only 30% of the attendees that were software deveopers, engineers, hackers. My first reaction to the ticket sales patterns was- oh crap, we don’t have enough designers. But my man Eddie Tejeda quickly reframed this as an advantage- after all we need ideas and implementors and people who will use an app on each team, not just designers building for themselves and from their own idead. He was right. it worked.
I enjoyed Jen Pahlka’s keynote, showing us what this community can really do and how our impact matters. It’s easy as Jen mentioned, to forget your own town when there are so many needs and opportunities elsewhere that you’re asked to work!
I was then completely overwhelmed with the intense, long list of pitches from our attendees. So many great ideas, all grounded in some very real issue or need in our community. It was brilliant, but tough to manage. I think we did a reasonable job of feeding ideas from our Neighborland system into the Googel Moderator and then trying to form teams based on general interest- given we were late and needed to expedite it could have been cleaner but most people were happy it seemed, even if a few ideas didn’t get a team because the interested pitchers joined other great project teams…
The first real shock of the day was the result at the end of the hack team formation- we’d spent some real time building out a great set of workshops and speaker sessions for the community and government audience who had signed up and would not be joining hack teams, just like last year. At the end of the team forming this was the scene in the gorgeous auditorium:
Wow. With only a few exceptions the whole room emptied and joined a hack team. No way. Random oaklanders from all walks of life jumped on hack teams? Damn. Stunned. I felt a crazy tension of embarassment that our great speakers were totally ditched (yes me included, how could you all?) and awe that so many people were excited to get involved in efforts they really had no comprehension of till this day. Yes this was an unplanned outcome. Very unplanned but that just makes it even more awesome- Oakland you rock.
The day was solid developing and designing from then on. All speakers cancelled. Empty auditorium. Crazy cool.
What stood out through the day was the intensity and desire for conversation about civic technology needs, engagement opportunities and open government and open data. People really crave a venue for these conversations. I had so many exciting conversations with peopel eager to learn more about what modern tech can offer our community and our city and ways we can support this community more consistently. Love it.
We had some elected officials and others show during the day, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, city administrator Deanna Santana,, county administrtor Susan Muranishi and the county IT crew including Tim Dupus and Tobin Broadhurst promoting their new open data resource at data.adgov.org. I look forward to the day when government leaders really devote serious time to be part of these events, but at I think that even the 15 minutes they spent with us achieved one significant goal: these leaders have now seen a building full of hackers! Not hackers seeking to destroy and undermine anything, but hackers with incredible skills seeking ways to support and growntheir community and our government. This is not a small thing. To alter their perception of this community is monumental. Hackers are not “the enemy”. Sure some can be, but the generalization is harmful to productive, innovative society that sees government embracing the abilities of moder, agile, opensource loving developers.
The day was done way too soon. Our judges struggled to identify the award splits between 10 great tools prototyped. The winning app called Hack The Budget is something that for some analysts and data visualization folks may seem trivial, but it isn’t. It’s a perfect example of how data processing, viz tools and throughtful design can take an arcane, clunky, unusable product/data and turn it into something absorbable by the wider community in our city. making government accessible is a huge challenge and this app seeks to do just that. I’d say this is a hugely re-usable app once complete and open sourced. What city doesn’t need a clearer way to navigate its budget- even for city officials themselves! I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this app when it’s complete!
The runner up app was 510eat.org, and as a geogeek I was surprised and stoked to see a full opengeo stack being used to build working app with newly released data from Alameda County. Open data being consumed and utilized as a new tool just two weeks after the resource was beta released. Nice work team!
Lessons learned for future/other hackathons:
Spend more time connecting teams- we had one viable team with no designers and another team with about 7 developers. Oops.
One day is tough with so many great ideas. The trend of three day hackathons is sensible. Friday evening pitches and team formation. Two days of building. This means we need a better suited venue in Oakland as the awesome Kaiser center has significant costs per day and bandwidth issues. – Ideas? Hit me on twitter with ideas or throw down in Neighborland!
We did a hackthon without soda- no Choke or other sugar hits. And noone died or even complained. We actually forgot to buy them first, then realized we didn’t have them last year either, so we decided to see how it worked out. And it did. We’ll all live a little longer to code a few more lines and make just a little bit more with our lives…
Post seems long now, thanks for getting this far and so long from sunny San Diego!
Today in SF one of my favorite organizations had a big launch event with Mayor Ed Lee. I’m incredibly proud to have been a program mentor for Code for America in it’s inaugural year and have gained so much from my involvement with and support of CfA this past year. I swear that at every single tech, geospatial, gov and urbanist event I’ve attended in 2011 I’ve run into CfA fellows and have had great conversations and felt a huge kinship with the amazing people who have volunteered their year in service of our country.
Today the CfA CEO Jen Pahlka and the Mayor of SF announced the new accelerator startup that that will partner with cities to help streamline city processes and apply the innovation and energy of the startup tech world to the challenges of city government in SF and other cities. Also announced was the move of Jay Nath from the SF Tech Dept to the Mayor’s new Chief Innovation Officer position, congrats Jay and very impressive decision by a proactive Mayor Lee!
What does this usual tech innovation and government transformation mean to us in the East Bay? Firstly we need our city leaders and officials to recognize and support the great wealth of talent we have in the technology sector in Oakland. San Francisco is seen as the hub of tech innovation, but the reality is that Oakland has this facet also- Pandora is my personal fav of the Oakland tech startups to make it, and is a great employer in our city. Given the turnout at the first Code for Oakland event we helped run last year and the recent OpenData Day Hackathon we ran, it’s very clear to me how many interested, talented, creative technology developers we have in our town, and the reality that too many of our leaders do not appreciate is that these professionals want to support, improve, grow and celebrate our city.
Secondly we need to encourage a culture of innovation and creativity in city government, especially in the realm of technology and community engagement. I’ve had a chance to work with many city staff across different departments and can draw out a long list of problems, failures and flaws that other cities in the CfA program have also identified as weak points and have now developed open source solutions to fix these weaknesses. Currently the city is leaderless in this space and our county is not far ahead of the city. There is no support of the local tech community from city hall, no spirit of entrepreneurship emanating from the city hall, no effort to be a platform for civic innovation and very little real engagement with this hugely talented pool of local software engineers who have a habit of finding incredible solutions to city tech issues.
This frustrates the crap outta me. As a city we have all the ducks lined up, all we need is a city structure that supports and leverages the opportunities and tools already built. Our government can and should be a platform for civic innovation and new tech startups. But what needs to happen first is that the city shows some intentional leadership on this. Like San Francisco we should create a role for an Innovation Director for the city, either in the Tech Dept or in the Mayor’s office. We should also consider the need to have the ITD director as a cabinet level position- technology is not just a bunch of back room nerds doing desktop support and the person responsible for all the city tech infrastructure should not be merely a director level with no strategic input at the Mayor’s table. This person would be empowered to motivate and mobilize our great tech community to help build new solutions for our city and to help adapt many of the tools built through CfA and in the Civic Commons to collaboratively improve our city technology solutions. Many of our tech problems have been solved in other cities and all we need to to is pick from existing open sourced applications and implement them in our town.
From my work here are a few quick areas that I’ve seen solutions for either out of CfA or in the Civic Commons:
One glimmer of hope is the recent decision of the city Public Works agency to adopt a tool called SeeClickFix. This is the first tech move that indicates a move to more open, innovative software selection for Oakland and I’m excited about this move. We’ve already had access to this app to a degree but this new step means the city will be integrating this web based citizen reporting tool with it’s newish CityWorks platform. Finally a set of tools that have open interfaces and allow the city to connect to other systems as they are implemented. This is great, a good, forward thinking decision and we need much more of it! So congratulations for this. Seriously.
I think our city has enormous potential to become a leader in this field, to be seen as a true innovator and a city of real collaborative efforts to solve our common problems. But our leaders need to step up and be real leaders in order to see this occur. Otherwise it will happen slowly and stubbornly on it’s own, and the city will not be recognized through this but will instead grow it’s reputation as an immovable, clunky, closed bureaucracy that did nothing to leverage the immense talent and interest of it’s residents.
the Accelerator event
To hear about the accelerator as it ramps up