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:  

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!

Oakland’s City Council Tech to upgrade from 1997 software

To get an idea of how badly Oakland needs to upgrade it’s digital infrastructure read this one line from the staff report today:

“Legistar 4.8 has not been upgraded since purchase in 1997 & has reached the limits”

Limits in this case being the massive limitations of the current technology to support better civic engagement and discussion and no ability for our community to access the critical data held in the legislative system in Oakland.
There are many big changes desperately needed in our city’s tech stack and this is one long overdue. Our ancient legislation software was the reason Miguel and his crew struggled so hard to complete the build-out of our Councilmatic system, however with this big upgrade, we’ll be using a similar system to other major cities which means both improved user facing functionality as well as a much easier deployment of a more robust Councilmatic system that has been tailored for this version by folks in Phily & Chicago.

This upgrade hit the city Finance Committee today, we’ve been waiting for over two years so it’s exciting that this finally gets approved. While the software upgrade itself is an important step for our city, more important was witnessing the ways our staff and elected officials have adapted their thinking about technology, data, code and procurement.  Two years ago there was nothing to brag about, not much to be proud of in our cities use of technology and our law making. Today saw what I think was a pivotal moment for our city. Curious? This gets geeky fast, sorry…

It turns out that there is something in addition to the basic software the vendor, Granicus, can offer- an API – if you’re not a tech geek, this essentially means a robot (code, not real) that takes in requests form various people, programs, companies and dishes out the information requested in digital form.  In this case, the API is something Granicus has built but has not made available to cities that have not required access to it- almost noone to date (NYC is just now struggling to get this sorted out and seems to be on the right track).  Councilmember Schaaf halted before approving the purchase and asked the committee to require that Granicus provide us with this API as part of the contract requirements. Noone in Oakland has ever unbundled the contracted software from the date before (aside form the unintentional effort with SeeClickFix that came with an API we didn’t need to request).
This means that we get a new legislative publishing and video streaming system, but we also get direct access to all the data in this system- machine readable data that allows local hackers and engineers to build alert systems on specific issues and neighborhoods, custom tools to help people stay informed about what our government is doing and, well, anything you may want to do with full access to the data about our decision making and public meeting track records- voting decisions, law sponsoring and more. Stuff civic geeks dream of.
After the meeting I emailed LaTonda Simmons, our City Clerk who is the manager of this whole system to thank her for moving this and making it possible to unlock this data.  I was concerned the lack of specificity about the API being public would somehow bite us in the ass, I was wrong.  Her response was encouraging- folks in city hall are listening and it turns out that geeks can make a difference.

Hi Spike – I spoke to Granicus immediately after to Finance.  They reconfirmed they will turn on API.   And yes, your feedback and that of many others will be important in this process.  More to come and thank you for your support also.  I must add that this wouldn’t have been possible without Bryan making it move.  Looking forward to the next CityCamp event.  Chat soon.

-= LaTonda S.

People in the city are really starting to get this stuff and it’s gonna be awesome as it becomes the norm- less bundling of contracted software with the data etc. And thanks to our new CIO Bryan Sastokas for starting to make things happen!
Info on the staff report here.
Oakland’s current system for council info is here.
Side note:
Also on this committee’s agenda was an awesome proposal to increase and make permanent a number of deeper engagement efforts around the city budget that the Budget Advisory Committee proposed.

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.

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!

Can we multitask Opening Government?

I love this idea from the Opening Government project:

our intent is not to make smarter, decentralized, or collaborative government—it’s to do all 3 at the same time.

This is exactly what we’re trying to do at OpenOakland! It’s not sufficient to try to achieve just one of these goals- they are all related and critical. It’s hard to re-imagine government with just one of these areas reformed.

If this sounds like something important or something you have any interest in then join us to help redefine citizenship and government at CityCamp on Dec 1st:

If this event really gets you excited and you want to do more for your community then we’d love for you to join up with OpenOakland- we meet weekly in City Hall on Tuesdays. Find out more here:

OpenData hits Oakland City Council

Today is a very exciting day in the city of Oakland, especially so if you’re in any way interested in public data, civic engagement, open government and technology incubation and innovation in your community. At noon today the city council’s Finance and Management Committee (sounds fun doesn’t it!) will hear a resolution and likely pass said resolution requiring the city to move towards a true OpenData platform. After 18 months of civic hackers, developers, journos and tech heads talking, encouraging, blogging and educating our elected officials, we finally are at a place where our cities enormous data holdings can be utilized for more than mere compliance reporting and perhaps occasional management tasks.

This represents some very real, very powerful change for our town. It means that our rich developer community will have a huge trove of data to work with for app development, research, analysis, data visualization, accountability work and for planning of new businesses in the tech and non-tech sectors. It’s a chance for us to not be a lagging city, to really tap the potential we have both internally in city hall and in our residents.

Imagine- being able to quickly and easily find all the current business permits by address, to compare that with the vacant and blighted property datasets, city zoning standards for every parcel,  to then add in the best crime data, population demographics and public works calls for service- all the key pieces of information a potential new business owner would want to consider placing a new location in Oakland. Key things that allow commerce to grow and prosper, all available to everyone, at no cost. The potential for our town is huge, city data warehouses, bureaucratic spiderwebs of red tape and uncertainty over what data exists and can be released are a real and present barrier to growth and development in our city, especially in micro-enterprise and new, innovative start-ups. But this can change.

The resolution hitting the committee today, introduced by Council member Libby Schaaf is a result of slow, honest education of our elected officials and leaders of the value of data to both our community and to city staff, and open data policy, process and web portal will mean incredibly smooth access to data for city staff and officials that do not have access even now, which is a travesty.  It’s also a result of some fantastic field building efforts courtesy of CivicCommons, Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation.

Now that several other US cities have established OpenData policies and work-flows, I don’t see the need to go through all the pain and red tape of new policies drafted by committees in every single city in the US, (ala my piece on Barriers v Processes). I’ll write up the whole process from day one of trying to get a city to consider and implement an OpenData policy once it’s all done, but for now I want to show how the pieces can be massaged to work together.

The resolution and the report for the committee includes concepts, large chunks of text and principles from the following sources:

So we’re not there yet, but it’s finally happening, and I want to make sure the above sources get due credit for making the path straighter for us here in Oakland. If we can build and reuse technology in government we sure as hell should be reusing policies, reusing approaches to get new policies in place or at least considered, and reusing approaches to highlight the value of opendata for our local governments.

Lastly, regarding the build-out of an opendata portal for Oakland, as we had been planning (via Urban Strategies Council and the Code for America Brigade), we are going to wait for this resolution to pass, hoping that the city administrator or mayor’s staff will be willing to really engage us and the tech community to plan and help build out a system for both the community and the city to use and manage. I’d always prefer a partnership approach than a solo gunman approach. Hopefully this will be the first big opportunity for the city to open up and work with its very skilled, motivated tech community!