Concerned Internet Citizens of California

Net Neutrality is a big deal. My opinion and as of today the opinion of our President. The FCC is considering a rule to allow internet providers to charge premo rates to big companies to give them better speed to deliver their content to you the consumer, sounds like a reasonable idea at first? The problem is the internet was create as an open, even, fair system and was engineered to always allow for fair treatment of anyone’s content- the problem is that when Verizon, Comcast etc charge Netflix big dollars for faster pipes, they can also refuse to do so and then favor their own network content- no longer a level playing field. For small businesses this means they will no longer be able to compete in the same way- startups like, say, Facebook several years back could not afford to pay for this premium delivery, so they get wiped out- bad for innovation, bad for consumers.

That’s a short a bad summary, anyway, there’s a great engagement and democracy side to this- the FCC opened up for comments and in new open government fashion then published all the >1 million comments in raw open data for free download, yay! The nice folks at Smarter Chicago beat me to processing the data, and so you also shouldn’t mess with that, just grab the data in a nice easy format. I wanted to see how active and how vocal different communities in California were about this issue- were big cities the source of the complaints? Were small, isolated towns aware of this issue and vocal?

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I grabbed the processed data, aggregated by City names, cleared out some junk data, combined it with Census populations and locations (I forgot how painful it is to get basic Census data these days) and calculated a simple rate- for every 100,000 people in a city/town, how many comments got submitted- neither for or against, but just how active and engaged are people in California? There are a bunch of small towns left off as their rates are not reliable. Take a look at your region, are you surprised how high or low your rate is?

I was somewhat surprised to see a few rural towns topping the commenter lists- Nevada City (oops, maybe this is my family complaining?), has the highest rate followed by Sebastapol – NorCal represent… San Francisco, the tech darling is down at 44 with almost 7,000 comments but a rate of only 782. Oaktown is less activist full than normal at #80 with a rate of 536 and dearest Silicon Valley/Palo Alto is a shameful 63rd at a rate of 665- tech city needs some more concerned residents?

The data with city by city stats are below.

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Power struggles

If you’d prefer to never see this kind of mess happening Oakland (thanks Berkeley for the great non-example), you should join Oakland Votes and many residents of the city to work on the creation of an independent Redistricting Commission for our city! Details on the flyer below- this will be a ballot measure this November assuming that city council passes it.  The meeting is to get community input into the model Oakland chooses to adopt- both California and Austin have done this and we can learn form their efforts! We’ll have good food and you’ll get to play a valuable part in shaping the future of our city, and the future shape of our council maps too!

props to @mollyampersand for the original, distant design elements.

Oakland’s Citizen Redistricting Comission

In late 2013 as the city’s redistricting process began to wind down, several organizations involved in the Oakland Votes Coalition and city officials began talking about the possibility of creating a Citizens Redistricting Commission to avoid the usual politicized process in Oakland every 10 years.  The commission concept has been discussed as being somewhat aligned to the structures of those used in the California State Redistricting and the model that Austin implemented (based on California’s).

The main components for consideration in creating such a commission are:

  • Independently appointed citizen commissioners;
  • Diversity amongst commissioners;
  • Size of commission;
  • Budget & staffing support;
  • Authority & Process;
  • Cycle- Oakland is on a strange cycle, a year or two behind other cities/states, we can correct that;
  • Disqualifying factors for commissioners;
  • Who gets to appoint or nominate; and
  • Timeframe for existence- an ad-hoc committee can form the year of a redistricting process and be terminated after the process and any court cases are complete.

The groups present in the discussions so far include: Council Members Schaaf and Kalb, The League of Women Voters, Urban Strategies Council. ACCE, Oakland Rising and the Greenlining Institute.  This is not a formal body of any kind and the group  is not limited to these organizations.

To get broader feedback on this concept the city and the coalition are seeking your ideas, you can respond in the survey here.

The current intention is that this could be passed by City Council for inclusion in the November election as a ballot measure.  This will require Council to hear and approve this starting in May 2014.  it will result in a Charter Amendment to create such a commission if the ballot were to pass.

Those who would like to be involved organizationally can contact the Oakland Votes Coalition or Council Member Kalb or Schaaf’s offices.

In 2013 we created a number of resources to inform our community about redistricting and voting patterns in Oakland, check out our dynamic voting outcomes map tool and our summary of the redistricting outcomes here.

The incredible agency of #opendata

The way we phrase our conceptions is both a simple thing and a complex, layered thing. I’m spending today at CITRIS for a conference of leaders, practitioners and vendors focused on the topic of:

Can “Open Data” Improve Democratic Governance?

This questions is proposed frequently amongst the circles pushing for open data from our governments. But I think we’re making a mistake at the outset, we’re assigning agency to a lifeless, purely digital concept. We need to be smarter than this.

Can Open Data do anything, let alone improve democratic governance?

Hell No.

Open Data can not do anything as it’s just data, numbers, whatever, sitting lifelessly on a sever in the magical cloud somewhere.

What is actually important here? It’s in OPENING data that we do things. What is important is that governments and agencies actually OPEN their data. That act, possible through the agency of the government officials (real people who can make this decision) is what can improve democratic governance.

Let’s not get caught up in vendor speak that some inanimate thing can actually do anything. People need to open their data, and other people must animate and utilize it.

So yes, Opening Data can do much.

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/

Viva la USA

Say hello to your newest naturalized immigrant friend. Me. Today I joined 1,240 other people from 98 nations to become naturalized, US Citizens! I’m excited. I can now vote, and according to the MC I can tell police to back off, I’m a citizen. I think I’m safe on that one until cops start profiling bald Australians though.

Extra special was having the ceremony in the incredible Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, a town I love in one of my favorite venues in the world. I felt a little strange, swearing to give up allegiance to Australia, so please don’t start any wars my fellow/former Australians. I will always call Australia home, to use a Qantas by-line. It will never be replaced in my heart as my home and my roots, and I do feel a tinge of sadness at becoming an Aussie-American, but this is my new home, that I love dearly, her people, her natural wonders, her cities and her struggles. I did tear up just a little during President Obama’s video when he said “this is YOUR country now”. That did feel pretty deep.

paramount

So after year’s of sending my wife off to vote solo, I get to enjoy the incredible technological triumphs of the great State of California and registered to vote online in just 5 minutes! Yay technology. Voter suppress my ass I dare you.

vote

And to ease any doubts from those of you heavily embedded in one extreme or another of our political shit storm, I picked NO PARTY. Because there just aren’t any that seem to fit a white, immigrant, somewhat morally conservative, very progressive, very open, democracy loving, social justice fighting, Christ following, hip hop loving, racism hating, equity obsessed, tech loving, open debating, non-LGBT bashing, government honoring yet government reforming, data loving, truth seeking, community building, service driven family guy. And forming a party of independents seems slightly nonsensical.

So join with me: U..S..A….U..S..A…, Oi, Oi Oi

On Becoming an American. Thoughts on democracy and citizenship

Have you ever heard of the term Australian-American? I haven’t. But I’m about to use it a lot.

I was born and raised in the most remote town in the very heart of Australia, a place called Alice Springs, yes the one from the book and a couple of movies. 1,000 miles from the nearest city or the ocean. I grew up hunting kangaroos, trying to catch snakes, digging up grubs form tree roots to eat and working on a cattle ranch and slaughterhouse (grass fed baby, no other way in the bush). I don’t like wearing shoes still. I did live in a town and go to a normal school too, I’m not that wild. We did have a K-Mart and couple of high schools.

It’s been over twenty years since I left the bush. Almost seven years since I migrated to the USA and got married (yes I’m a mail-order husband). I’m know blessed to live in one of the most amazing parts of the world- the San Francisco Bay Area, the East Bay in particular.  I’m humbly proud to be an Aussie, we don’t do patriotism much, but I do love my homeland and miss it often. But this week I’m taking the US Citizenship exam to become an American, make that an Australian-American. I struggled with that term for some time, it sounded cheesy and stupid at first, but I thought of my Chinese and African-American compadres and what that term means for them. For me it’s similar- I am becoming a US Citizen and will be an American, as mixed as that is globally, but I’m always going to be an Australian- that doesn’t change. So I’m going to soon be an Australian-American.

Why would I want to do this? Why does it matter anyway?

I think it’s really important that we participate in the communities we live in. Passive residency never builds countries, nor change, nor vibrant communities. I think this operates both nationally as well as locally.  It’s easy to live the white flight dream of a suburban house with a nice school and two cars and to focus on career and family, but it’s also a passive existence.  I see a functioning democracy as a powerful, valuable thing that needs to be nurtured, like a garden or like a relationship. If we check out and live our lives focused inwardly we will build a nation of selfish, self interested individuals. That’s not something I want a part of.

I come from a country where voting is compulsory. 100% turnout. From that background, living in a country and not being able to vote is like being castrated civically. Even living in a state that may not represent any option for a shift in federal voting patterns I still feel dis-empowered by not being able to vote on issues I know about and care about. It feels like fraud to speak up on so many issues and not be able to vote on them. So the right to vote is definitely a big reason for me becoming a US Citizen. I’m much less excited about Jury Duty however.

I’ve had a great privilege to be part of local and national efforts to help make government more open, more accessible and more technologically agile. Again, coming from another country endows one with great perspective on the relative strengths and weaknesses of “how we do things”, and often on how things could be done a lot better.  Part of this work is connected with government officials, elected leaders and civic groups. I’m inspired by the passionate activism I see around me, the sacrificial leadership and support in service of low income and working communities of color and the fight for equality and freedom for all in the USA. I’ve had moments of disgust at the actions carried out by the State in this country that have made me seriously question my decision to become an American.  But like local struggles and issues, I don’t believe one can have an impact from the sidelines as a passive observer, one needs to be part of the community you are seeking to change.

I’m excited to be part of the changing discourse on politics and government service in this great country.  And part of my commitment to honoring public service, civil discourse and debate and activism is to become one with the others in this country.  I grew up with a strong sense of the importance of critical thinking and debate. Sometimes my wonderful wife things this is too strong… I’m often frustrated at the quality of discourse and media coverage on government in the USA, but I do believe that it does not have to be this way, but to bring about that change those of us with ideas and vision need to be active and involved. Government will not become more open, transparent, engaged and agile without our support and not until we break down this fallacy of government as THEM (the others) and the public as US (the people). Every member of the civil service is a resident and member of the public- they all live in communities and suffer or succeed with the rest of us. Likewise we the people are a self governed country, we make up our government and we have a role to play in our governance and in the changing direction of our country.

This change, the journey into an unknown but exciting future as a country is something I’m happy to sign up for.  I’m throwing my hat into the ring with the rest of you 305 million Americans. I think we can all do better. I think we all want more from our government and I have some ideas on how to make that happen. But I can’t do that from the sidelines.

The quality of our ideas is diminished when we close off debate with those who disagree with us, when we ignore evidence that challenges our preconceived notions.

Eggers & Oleary, If we can put a man on the moon…