Code for America Brigade Captains

Today the inaugural Brigade Captains were announced as part of the Code for America Brigade program. I’m proud and nervous to be the first Captain of an Oakland brigade- Open Oakland. I think we may well have a co-captain very soon too. There’s simply so many things a CfA Brigade can achieve in Oakland and a lot of work to coordinate and plan it out.

The official version is here:

“Brigade is all about recognizing and supporting the volunteer efforts of civic minded technologists throughout the country who want to contribute to the civic web and code for America where they live. Our aim at Code for America is grow, strengthen, and connect the network of people involved in doing so. We have two mechanisms for doing that.

The Brigade Captains program is our structured, facilitated, ideal model for local brigades and brigade leadership. Captains are enlisted for a one year commitment to develop, publish, and execute a year-long plan for their cities based on our core activities. Captains are hold regular meetings of their brigades, host events in their cities, and share the stories of their accomplishments.”

If you have an interest in open government, open data, civic innovation and have skills to help us move this work in Oakland please join the Brigade site, then email openoakland@googlegroups.com to connect in with us- our first meeting will be next week. Brainstorming, intros, plans and projects. Beer too.

Launch post

Fledgling site for Open Oakand

Here’s the rest of the captains/brigades:

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Data Collection Community Style

I had the chance to see a preview today of the Detroit team’s app called LocalData today- part of the Code for America program.  Once again it’s very exciting to see what a team of outside designers, technologists, planners and data geeks can do in the right environment and with the right pretext. For me this is a liberating and exciting trend. Having come up with ways to do the exact same thing in my work I’m painfully aware of how clunky and onerous it is to set up the tools to conduct and manage and publish survey data- our city has been surveyed to death and the results are typically in the filing cabinets of nonprofits and government departments. useless.

Take a quick look at the video showing what LocalData is and does and read on..

LocalData Demo by Code for America from CfA Detroit on Vimeo.

These kinds of newly developed tools would have made a huge difference in the development and implementation of our last major community survey project with a team of high schoolers from Youth UpRising in East Oakland (full article here).

Typically if a community group, organizing group or public agency want’s to collect data they need to call some experts. And we don’t come cheap typically. When we started this project the ask was to help their youth survey their community, so we helped them to identify the focus- park conditions and safety, property conditions and healthy food availability.

Paper sucks, in most instances. We ended up choosing to purchase some discounted Trimble Juno GPS units and got donated ArcPad software from ESRi along with ArcGIS Mobile that came with our server licenses. At the time (mid 2010) the new Mobile software was terrible, super unstable on any setup we tried, bugs the development team couldn’t solve, so out went the more elegant interface and in went an ArcPad project. Trouble is no-one else on our team had had the joy of working with this product before, so fun for me… The devices were loaded with all the parcel data for their community and a bunch of survey screens to gather condition data- we copied a property survey done in another major city to have some form of data standard in the end. Let me just add that even for a seasoned GISP the learning curve and setup time for this app is not small or pretty.

The units froze in the field, crashed, lost data and all kinds of fun that frustrated the students and added time and cost to managing the project. I don’t think we had more than three students actually like using the device/app. But we got out data for the parks and for every property in the tract. 1,000 parcels surveyed. Every park in East Oakland surveyed (there we used a survey template from a HEAL group in Richmond to again try to get some comparable data in our region). But all the data had to be managed, processed and mapped by our team of researchers.

The finished poster of the project is below. The photos we had to take later with a real camera as the Juno devices would only provide ArcPad with a 160×120 image, awesome, that’s like 0.01 megapixels?? Another reason why a smartphone solution just kills it. Once we finished a friend of ours who is a java guru suggested next time we get a Java app built for a smartphone, faster and cheaper. This is where the Code for America approach is powerful. Most small nonprofits don’t have a budget for app developers and we have a hard time convincing managers to fund app/automation development up front to produce a reusable product that saves serious time later and can be reused elsewhere freely.  So we’re looking forward to implementing this new tool in Oakland and the east bay, especially on a full open stack with PostGIS! But we’ll still need funding to help make this happen 😉

Housing conditions

Oh, and as we believe strongly in open data this project’s data IS available in shapefile, excel or csv.

To see more about this great CfA project, to copy their code and more, hit up:

http://golocaldata.com/

Code for Oakland: Unexpected Awesomeness

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:
Ask.com
Socrata
Code for America
Kapor Foundation
The Oakland Tribune
Urban Strategies Council
The Kapor Foundation
Oakland Local
Neighborland
OpenShift/Red Hat
The City of Oakland
Pandora

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!

Jen Pahlka

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…

Oaklandwiki session

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.

Dattit team

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.

Our awesome judges

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!

Oaklandwiki session

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!

Mac world?

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

Come and Code for Oakland in 2012!

It’s on again! We’re helping run the second wonderful hackathon for Oaktown: called Building Our Civic Web.

The focus of this year’s hackathon is on building apps, hacking public data and building tools to support economic development in Oakland, improve civic engagement, improve digital education and literacy in our residents and provide tools to attract and sustain local business in the town.

We’ve all seen ways that new businesses, local communities and the city itself could be massively improved through the thoughtful, creative use of good new tech solutions right? This is the perfect opportunity to show how the awesome developer community in Oakland and around can contribute in a powerful way to the improving and sustaining of our city. Coders matter.

As a lead up to the main hackathon our wonderful volunteers are running a month-long series of focused listening sessions to share your ideas, brainstorm community needs and help shape what is built at the hackathon. We want to hear from small business owners, community activists, teachers, city staff, nonprofit leaders and people from across the city- your ideas may just spark a great new app or tool to make positive change in our city!

I hope you will join Oakland’s community of civically engaged developers, coders, designers, entrepreneurs and innovators as we re-imagine ways in which collaboration and technology can help shape, grow, and sustain the healthy future of our City.

We think sustainable communities are important, and software needs sustaining also, so this year we’ll feature the great apps built last year and check in with the teams on how they’ve struggled or succeeded in getting their work into heavy adoption. We’re doing this to get real about how we as a community can better support any new apps built and make sure good ideas get more than just recognition and prizes- they get used and change our community!

www.codeforoakland.org

Register now at http://codeforoakland2012.eventbrite.com/

Follow the action with #CodeforOakland

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!

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.

An Open Letter to Oakland: Innovate or stagnate.

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:

  • Contracting processes: currently a small business contract with the city for perhaps a few thousand dollars requires the business to complete approximately 12 different documents, from word docs to locked PDFs, so they must print them all and fill them out by hand, and then submit copies. I can only imagine the city process for recording and managing these various forms when they are received. Take a look at the SmartPDF work in SF for a powerful solution, or just make the effort to combine all these forms into a single, fill-able PDF at the very least, and one day perhaps implement web based forms?
  • Adopt an Open311 system for calls for service. This platform, developed in SF and DC is an open source 311 system that has open connectors and a new public dashboard feature developed by CFA. Very powerful and no proprietary software required.
  • Work with the county to build a unified property addressing system.
  • Implement Classtalk.org across the OUSD and help our teachers keep in touch with their students via SMS – perfect for a community with low internet access at home!
  • Implement ChangeByUs, a great new tool for community engagement and collaboration.
  • Implement an OpenData policy and work with our tech community to build an OpenData portal for our city. Free up valuable city data to encourage innovation, engagement and new startups! We’re doing this anyway, but it should be supported by our city!

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.

I love my town and I’m excited to work for an organization who supports civic technology innovation. If our city steps up we’ll support their efforts aggressively. Our town needs some positive PR, and this one is all ready to go!
peace
Spike
Read more:

the Accelerator event

To hear about the accelerator as it ramps up