Oakland Planning, data and engagement

There’s a frustrating but worthwhile read over at sf.streetsblog on the city’s decision to close down part of the Latham Sqaure pilot in downtown Oakland. The pilot was meant to last for six months and is being partly shelved after just six weeks. This is another sad example of bad use of data, closed decision making and poor engagement in our city.

Problem # 1:

Planning Director Rachel Flynn, when asked for data on Latham Square’s use, said, “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

This is 2013 and with the powers of Google at our fingertips (yes, despite the clunky computers in city hall they still can get on to the internets). There are two stupidly simple options should this have been something our city staff actually wanted to do- to understand the problem or the situation. We could have worked with local hackers to build simple, cheap sensors using Raspberry Pi devices and off the shelf sensors- read how here. Or we could have simply paid for a small pilot using the super clever MotionLoft system built in SF that is aimed at helping retail businesses understand pedestrian flow and patterns.

No data is not a situation that is acceptable in this century.  No data simply suggests we don’t care enough to gather it. It says that facts are not really what matter, it’s all about perception and personal opinion. No data cannot be adequately challenged or debated. Data are not everything, but no data are dangerous.

Problem #2:

When you hear an official say something like “we were kind of hearing the same thing over and over” you should be skeptical. Especially when you have people representing significantly sized local organizations stating that they have heard almost nothing but differing opinions to those proffered by city staff.  This problem breaks down into two sub-issues. Firstly, the type of engagement common in our planning dept and the city in general- a couple of town hall meetings which tend to attract squeaky wheels who are in opposition to most projects and are only scheduled to suit a small percentage of the community.  In person alone is not a sufficient form of engagement given how digital our community largely is.  Secondly, there is little opportunity to really test this statement- the meetings don’t have nicely recorded videos to replay the conversations and oppositions and the city is not maintaining an online discussion on the pros and cons of this project. We have no record of these complaints within easy reach.

So what?

It’s disappointing that in a city that desperately lacks any innovation or experimentation, we cancel one of the few creative place based projects so fast.  When the rationale to end the project is that it was "prompted by negative feedback… What we’ve heard from property owners and businesses is they need that access” for cars, it’s hard not to wonder if that is the best approach to civic decision making.

Almost no project or idea in Oakland goes without its critics- if we shut down every experiment to improve our city with no data to objectively measure the impact and if we continue to fail to leverage online communities for ideation and constructive feedback, we are doomed to remain a city under-invested in itself and its future.

If you love the current (well, former) plaza, you can sign the WOBO petition.

Lost Opportunities in Government – The CDO

Just read a great blog post by Logan Kleier, the Information Security Officer for the City of Portland on the lost opportunities that US cities face because of how the CIO role in most cities has devolved. Chief Information Officers are present as senior or cabinet level technology professionals in many large cities and counties, many are incredibly innovative and forward thinking individuals, but as Logan very cohesively states:

“In order to manage this transformation of computing and storage power, city governments followed the private sector’s lead and created Chief Information Officers (CIOs). However, something went wrong. CIOs started managing the infrastructure and not the actual information. No one was managing the lifecycle of the data. In fact, an environmental scan of the 20 largest cities technology initiatives shows that most of their work isn’t around improving data access or decision-making. Instead, it’s about managing device and network lifecycles.”

His summary rings true with my experiences partnering with many municipal agencies. It’s even worse in places like Oakland where we don’t even have a CIO level position- technology just gets relegated to a “fix my computer, nerd” type of role in government, and this is both stupid and counterproductive. Instead of realizing technology as a huge leverage point for cities, we label tech folks as nerds and never really capitalize on their abilities or potential.

So many cities and counties appear to be crippled by the lack of strategic use of data and information (and tech too, different tale though), and to me this stems from the way we’ve relegated IT to a desktop support role.  Time after time I’ve seen agencies struggling to manage their data, operate in complete ignorance of what other agencies may have, use clunky, time wasting tools to “analyze” their data and make poor decisions as a result. It’s so clear to outside data geeks when cities present poorly synthesized data to support a policy or decision. Yet our elected leaders don’t seem to connect this consistently poor planning and research with the fact that they have no-one responsible for managing the rich data resources the city generates, nor for leveraging those resources in strategic ways.

When data does get applied to a decision making process it also seems to lack any level of contextual awareness from the users- again something that is abundantly clear to external planners, researchers and analysts. To me this results in a continuous stream of poorly reasoned, barely supported by data, in-justifiable policies. And it doesn’t need to be this way. When we devalue Information, bundle it with technology support and cripple it with siloed responsibilities we cannot expect more from the outcomes. Our municipal leaders need to recognize the huge strategic and operational benefits of thoughtful data use in government, and take steps to leverage this resource. As I’ve said before, the first step is to appoint a Chief Data Officer for the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda. Both these government bodies would realize enormous benefits from investing in this position. I’d ask the elected leaders in these governments to take a quick read of Logan’s post to see why this really matters, from a very independent source!

The Case for a Municipal Chief Data Officer.

Logan is twittering from @PortlandInfoSec

In the beginning, the earth was without form and void. Then Fisher said, “Let there be z-scores and ANOVA” and there were z-scores. And Fisher saw that regression was good, and he separated the significant from the nonsignificant.

Coco Krumme in Beautiful Data