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/

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Leadership- as a platform?

Over the past few years, two things have been prominent in my thinking and the subject of much of my internal monologue; government as a platform, and leadership.

I’ve forced more time into my schedule during the day and after work to think, to abstract the work we’re doing, what is means, why it matters and what is important that we’re not aware of. Government as a platform is an idea from a wonderful guy- Tim O’Reilly, who suggested that government truly should be a platform to enable society to function, grow, create.  Similar to software platforms that allow developers to create on top of them and produce amazing new things incredibly easily and cheaply, government is a base for our society that allows us all to live and create and prosper. As opposed to the common perception of government as a vending machine- taxes in, services out. The problem here is that vending machines are dumb and do not adapt.

I’ve had excellent opportunities these past few years to grow into a leadership role in my work place, in our community and in some networks I value greatly. I’ve not yet had any formal leadership training but I do read, quite a bit.

I grew up with strong, blunt bosses in most jobs. Aggressive, forceful and dominating men in most part. And the boomer generation seems to contain a lot of these people, people who have a style of management or “leadership” that is dominating, aggressive and controlling. The exceptions were two wonderful people in the WA Health Dept, Dr Jim Codde and Sally Brinkman. Reflecting on what I’ve started to understand about my own style of leadership with my team and my side projects has given me pause to reflect on what I’ve witnessed as leadership styles and characteristics that I value.

Funnily as I write this Alain De Botton is on in the background mentioning that the best way to get work our of people is by frightening them. Weird.

These two ideas have merged in my head now- the platform, and leadership to be exact.  I feel that to enable my team to do the best work possible, to grow professionally and to move our work to the next level I need to support them, to encourage them and to set examples I want them to follow of how to think, create and innovate and to maintain quality standards in all they do.  It feels like doing that type of support, being their cheerleader and inspiring is a much more effective way to do our work and create a space that people want to be attached to and to stay at. Rather than a eagle eyed micro manager drilling out work, it seems that being a leader is more like providing a platform for others to excel, to succeed and to learn and grow.  There is some conflict here, obviously a leader must be out cheer leading, promoting, fundraising and trumpeting the amazing work of their team, but that also must fit into the concept of a platform- to enable more great work, more exciting opportunities, one must support their team and marketing and bringing in new work is part of that support platform. 

It’s quite likely that these thoughts pertain more to the creative industries I’ve been privileged to be part of for some time. A factory setting or a construction boss perhaps is not a great place to suggest these approaches?  That caveat aside, this whole idea of leadership is something that has huge implications for our organizations, our longevity and our retention and achievements.  The longer I spend in the start-up and tech worlds the more I realize that the open, unstructured environments where software is created have a lot to teach us about better ways to run creative, thought heavy organizations and teams.

What I don’t know yet is how to translate the vision and goals we develop into formal action across the board. We need to be able to convert these into tangible plans and to make the case to people who may not think or function the same way. Just like making the case for the ROI for a new technology, we need to find ways to make the case for new leadership approaches, for pivots in organizations that do not pivot, to capture opportunities for funds and for new abilities, to take risks.

These are the same things that we are pushing for in the open government movement. It is imperative that we to consider everything we advocate for (from others) and apply those asks, values and challenges to ourselves. If we cannot adapt, cannot be open, cannot create a supporting platform in our own work, then we will have a hard time making that case for government. In this we need to lead by example. Take risks. Experiment. Be open. Innovate.

Finally a CityCamp in Oakland!

Amid the craziness of an election season, negative press all around, people getting political on Facebook, our nation becoming more and more polarized and a never ending stream of government corruption and scandals it’s hard to expect that regular people have any trust or interest in government anymore.  But that can and must change.  And guess what? You can play a part in this important change! Even in Oakland, a city with quite a mixed history…

CityCamp is in town! We at OpenOakland are proud to announce the first ever CityCamp in Oakland, visit CityCampOak.org to register now, it’s free and it will be inside City Hall on December 1.  This is an important event for those of us excite about this thing we call Open Government and for those of us who love this city!

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Why should you care, and attend?  We all rely on our local governments for so much, from delivering clean water, removing garbage, maintaining streets, parks and libraries and for hosting cultural events.  Like it or not you and I rely on government for a lot, and that’s cool.  In the USA we are blessed with a democracyfor the people and of the people. This system only works when we are all civically involved.  Contrary to popular press there is no “them” and “us”, we are our government, and our government consists of a whole bunch or “us”, that is people who live in our communities.  But there is a twist in this system. If we simply treat our cities like service vending machines- taxes in, service out, then we cannot expect innovation, efficiency and openness.  That is a closed concept, a limited function system that is dumb and doesn’t adapt.

But government can and should be much more. Many of us dig the idea of governmentas a platform: a platform which supports safe communities, job growth, solid schools, business development and innovation.  As a platform we can enable so much in our communities.  To most of you this is likely a new concept, but trust me this matters; our governments have a ton of changing to do, and they will not and can not do it without all of us being involved and engaged.

So come to CityCamp Oakland – it’s a whole day of amazing conversations, sharing, learning and ideation with people from inside city hall, local technologists, community members, journalists, advocates, teachers and other awesome people who care about their city and what it can really be.  CityCamps are unconferences- we build our agenda on the day. It’s fun. Seriously. You can lead a session on anything you want, it can be a new idea for a government/community partnership, a data issue, a possible technology solution.

CityCamps are a gateway drug to modern civic engagement.  We have two big choices in a Democracy- to sit back and be consumers (read- let others do the leading and have no say in how our country is run) or we can be citizens- actively involved in our communities. 

We just heard that the City Administrator is taking a lead from Mayor Ed Lee in SF and offering staff a day’s leave if they attend too, which is brilliant leadership- it’s often hard to encourage overworked, isolated city staff to waste a weekend day like this. So thank you Deanna for supporting your team and helping us to build a stronger community through real conversations and collaboration!

See you there December 1st!  This is a rare positive event in this political climate, come help us write the future of active, engaged democracy!!

CityCampOak.org

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…

We have a winner: Alameda County first to launch OpenData!

On top of a great week for data- with the city moving it’s opendata plans forward and a packed event for our first OakX series on the Data Driven City you would think that was enough data related news right? Wrong.

Alameda County has released it’s new OpenData platform in beta version in advance of our CodeforOakland hackathon on the 21st! Presenting:

https://data.acgov.org/

Yep, first Californian county outside of San Francisco to roll out an opendata platform! (Tell me if this is wrong please!) This is the result of many people. We began advocating for publicly available, open data last year and county board supervisor (and board pres) Nate Miley really championed this idea. Kieth Carson and Wilma Chan also have pushed for it. This year the administrator’s office got on board heavily and worked with the ITD folks to plan this effort with some support and guidance from my team here and there. So if you’re in a city or county with no such data resource this is proof that it can happen from an outside source- it just has to make sense to the government staff and leaders to happen- and yes that’s easier said than done!

This initial release is a preview essentially, layout changes and more data are on the way. It’s a Socrata based platform and the key part of that seems to be the turnkey appeal- most counties don’t seem to have the skills or interest in standing up something like CKAN which is perhaps a shame.

The most interesting new data being released from my perspective are the:

I’m looking forward to what local developers, analyst and researchers can start to create and learn with this new wealth of data! Props to Tim Dupuis, Tobin Broadhurst and Theresa Rude for their work on this!

Some playing:

http://geocommons.com/maps/185187/embed

OpenData inches forward in Oakland and Code for America to follow!

This week was a good week for data geeks, technologists and open government advocates in Oakland! The City Finance committee heard and passed onto the full council a plan to both adopt an opendata platform (and policy we expect) as well as the plan to contract with Code for America as a 2013 city (should we be a finalist)!!!

These are great things for our city, a city starved from innovation and good technology  decisions in the past, but these progressions represent a move towards better government and better support of the civic technology community! Finally. The next step for both is to get final approval by the Oakland City Council, I’ll be hitting up people to come and support both so we don’t lose these opportunities.

There was some confusion in committee about the delineation of what opendata was and who would be “doing” it and what Code for America was and what it would be doing. To make it clear:

  • The CfA fellowship will be for a team of fellows- not a single intern. Yes it may seem cheap, but there is a philanthropic match required!
  • The OpenData effort is NOT connected (directly) to the CfA contract. it may be symbiotic, but the opendata system is being planned, built(?) and implemented by an internal city team.
  • Either can happen without the other, but both are immeasurably stronger together!

I’m amused by the city staff assessment of how much it would cost them to build such a platform internally, it speaks to the dire need for Code for America like experimentation and new skills in all governments. Given our OpenOakland brigade member stood up a functioning opendata platform using CKAN in a single night it’s hard to take seriously a claim that we should pay ~$120,000 for developers to build something. This is part of the equation in government that results in decisions made to contract with outside vendors who are too often way too expensive for what they provide but still provide better value and options than an internal solution. This needs to change.

The concept for the CfA partnership is to reform/rebuild the city’s contracting and procurement system- and if you’ve ever had to deal with the city as a small business contractor you know this needs drastic rebuilding! Our city needs this to better support, attract and grow local businesses!

Overall the support for both efforts was strong and there is growing excitement from city staff for both of these opportunities- I’m excited about this also. My one desire for improvement here is that the city staff needs to begin genuine engagement with it’s tech/data community. Simply to build a tool and publish data is basic, good government, but to open up and engage your stakeholders and constituents- that’s great government.

*Disclaimer- I didn’t get to attend the committee meeting, two of my team did in my place. I was busy at a meeting in the City of Richmond introducing the idea of OpenData… the harvest is plentiful

How to (not) support new business in Oakland

There’s a lot of excitement in Oaktown lately, lots of amazing national press coverage about how amazing our town is, how great and diverse the food and culture is, the art and music scene and the bustling new venues to enjoy. People in city hall and various chambers are talking about new business opportunities here and are optimistic about the chances for a real retail and commerce boost to this wonderful but struggling city. I’ve been chatting with people about the ways to enable and encourage new business start-ups, in both the tech and regular retail/commerce world, lots of folks are positive about spaces being leased and used from Jack London to Uptown. Then I ran across a hackathon (that is sadly fully booked, say what?) with a focus on building opportunities for commonly disenfranchised and discouraged communities to help establish new businesses in their communities, very cool TED. And I started thinking about how a new entrepreneur goes about finding the space for their new business in San Francisco, and conversely how they would do the same in Oakland. Profound differences.

In SF you quickly stumble upon the official SF Prospector, an online tool that is old and clunky from a UI point of view but never the less allowed me to pick some square footage requirements, select an area of interest, a leasing rate and some other sensible variables and then to automate the process of finding possibly suitable sites. For my theoretical new photography studio I found a good location, that happened (by pure luck I’m sure) to be on a block with several other photographic studios close by, so fortunate locality with related traffic in the area, awesome.

But if I wanted my new site to be in sunny Oakland, to establish my new business in this side of the bay? Good luck. Leg work, connections, various real estate and small business sites with no real info and no leads. Nada from the city or the county. So we have a new dream team of the city administrator Deanna Santana, well reputed deputies in Scott Johnson and Fred Blackwell and zero ability for new business owners or expanding ones to find possible new locations quickly and online and at no cost. I was really stunned, nothing official, nothing to make the path smooth to help business locate in our town. WTF.

We recently soft launched www.infoalamedacounty.org as a web mapping and data viz tool to allow people to combine public data from multiple city and county agencies, all in one place, to promote data driven decision making and real, informed planning decisions. We aimed at our main partners in the CBO community, organizers and policy makers needing better access to data. But it may be that we need to load in all our countywide property data, connect up the foreclosure filings (which are privately held and sold by the way, or scraped…) and wait till the city releases all the current business permit data and vacancy info so we can just build this ourselves. The technology is no longer a real barrier, building interactive, responsive, usable tools to support our community should be a no-brainer for our governments, but it seems very slow in coming in the east bay. Technology is an enabler, but only if you choose to use it that way.

PS If you do know of a web based tool that does help businesses plan and launch in Oakland PLEASE let me know, I’d be happy to eat my words and let people know that it is actually possible!

Barriers or Processes?

In the past couple of days I’ve had informative meetings with two high level city officials (separately) and both have progressed in a good direction until we come to a topic that has a potential legal implication for the city. At this point an idea that was moving along nicely hits what is perceived as a real barrier to implementation or change in an area of the city structure that needs improvement. As the opengov, gov2.0 and other shifts in understanding of government grow we are seeing more and more innovative, creative solutions to common problems, many of which are highlighted on the CivicCommons.org platform. These barriers that end all hope of change because of the legal nature of information release or the legal requirements to get a new method cleared seemed analogous to the barriers faced by agencies adopting new, agile, open technologies: one city takes the hit and does the grunt work to make the policy, implement the new tech and publish their journey for the world to see. Call it the Code for America effect. (On waking today I realize the CfA effect has already been claimed and is slightly different from what I’ve implied, so I’ll redub this the CivicCommons Effect, didn’t intend to steal someone else’s idea 😉 )

To my (naive) mind, this very same scenario is the death of many city innovations, changes and policy improvements:

  1. Great new idea for city.
  2. Plan for idea to be made real.
  3. Idea hits legal clearance or policy barrier, lawyers say too hard, not worth it.
  4. Idea dead.
  5. Change stalled, hope lost.
  6. Business as usual.

As I thought more about these perceived barriers I thought of the other nearby cities that have faced and solved these very same issues. And in each case it seems really clear to me that these issues present not as real barriers (hence insurmountable, undo-able, impossible) but merely as processes. And processes can be followed everywhere.

If one city attorney or county counsel decides something is risky, illegal, uncomfortable, should this be treated as a barrier with all the anticipated costs, struggle, blood, sweat and frustration as such a barrier should? What if the next city across has been through the same damn thing and come out with a working solution? To me the issue is then just a process, one to be followed, tweaked and adjusted to suit but still a process, and a process is not expensive, time consuming nor daunting.

It’s essentially applying an open source software model to government issues. I have a need, I’m stuck on something and have no budget to hire a consultant to build the fix/system for my issue. But if I can find an open sourced solution that someone else built to solve just this issue, I can just take their great work and tweak it to suit my local need, wallah (infer sexy french accent here), I now have a solution and no big capital investment.

Why should every city government treat the same issues as unique barriers? If one has pushed through a solution, why would we try to face the issue as a barrier? If we change our mode of thinking we are now viewing this issue simply as a process to follow. I’m not trying to simplify complex scenarios nor to undervalue thoughtful planning, but I don’t see how we can view the same problems as unique, over and over again. Take the hard work others have done before us, leverage it for our city and residents benefit, and do the same with out struggles and wins- publish our process successes and our common software solutions and share in the efficiencies and collaborations that can strengthen our governments and improve their operation.

To wit, this is exactly how I’m approaching our efforts to implement opendata in both the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda. San Francisco, New York and Chicago have done the hard work blazing a trail, now we have a great process to follow so we don’t have to do the same hard work as they did.

  1. Identify problem
  2. Search for existing solution
  3. Plug and play.

And I think that the more we talk about the processes and struggles to change, the more we all gain.