Oakland’s Color Lines

I’m reading W.E. DuBois right now. I was led there through West and Asante. I blame them for raising my curiosity enough to want to buy and read some very old, very intense, very amazing writing from a long way back. While I wouldn’t recommend The Souls of Black Folk to most readers, it is some stunning work and paints such an incredibly detailed picture of a world in the south one hundred plus years ago.

I’m working on some redistricting problems for the City of Oakland
’s process and struggling to consider all the important aspects of building cohesive council districts that meet all the ideal requirements, it’s not easy. Contiguous districts, not breaking neighborhoods nor cracking the vote of communities of interest and much, much more needs to be understood.

For a simple exercise in “let’s just see if we can make a single, hills-bound council district in Oakland” I attempted to include only hills neighborhoods and those above the 580- the usual poverty split standard. When you do that you realize that you can get to a maximum population of perhaps 44,000 – we need to be closer to 55,000 in order to not have large variation- unless you can justify why that variation must exist. I had been looking at the data on the black voting population to see if this idea would break or include diverse communities and when I was done I panned down to look at areas to pull in population from the lower Rockridge areas and was stunned to see something that I’ve honestly seen hundreds of times on maps- Oakland’s Color Line running strong down Telegraph Ave.

The redder tones indicate high proportions of black voting age population in the population of citizens only.

Dubois refers to this concept as a Color Line that he observed in Georgia initially where communities of whites were completely distinct and segregated.  Seeing this data in Oakland in 2013 was a stark reminder as to how far we have not come from those early days of emancipation.

And that hills only district? Even including the entire hills, down to upper Rockridge still doesn’t give close to an even district population around 55,000….

Creating a new OpenData policy that works for Oakland

You often hear of collaborative models, real engagement and all that, but it often isn’t quite like that in reality. For once we have a chance to do something legit though. In Oakland. Urban Strategies Council has helped to draft a new policy for the City of Oakland to consider and with the encouragement of Council member Libby Schaaf we are making the draft open for any and all feedback. That’s right, you can suggest anything you like for consideration.

In a week or two we will host a roundtable/brainstorm at Urban Strategies Council to get together, hash out ideas and potential improvements and you’re welcome to participate in person.  The draft form takes what I consider to be the most relevant/strongest elements from policies in place in Austin, Portland and Raleigh. Why rewrite what others have done well. That’s what open source is about, and it works for more than software.

For the geekery, this policy is shared in Google Docs, not on GitHub. It’s not that we’re not cool enough or not down with GitHub (witness my amateur progress into that world, ha), it’s that we want something accessible to anyone for review, not just the uber geeks amongst us. We asked a few people on the edge of the dev world and had very resounding agreement that git would be a barrier, so we go low tech.

Have at it people- make it work for Oakland!

Draft policy.

Oakland Transparency Hearing

Yes you read it right, on June 25 we’re inviting you to join the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and OpenOakland for the 2013 Oakland Transparency Hearing!

The lineup for this hearing is pretty awesome, there will be a keynote from Tim O’Reilly on Government as a Platform along with these great speakers covering a wide range of open gov and transparency efforts relevant to our city:

Transparency 101Laurenellen McCann, Sunlight Foundation

The Problem with Transparency in California – Robb Korinke, California Forward

Innovations and EngagementAlissa Black, New America Foundation

Public Participation – Greg Greenway, Davenport Institute

Oakland InnovationsSteve Spiker, Nicole Neditch

The event is public and open to all, but please register on the eventbrite page so we can plan for the attendees as this is a collaborative meeting!

Upping the numbers game in Oakland PD

There is a lot of public pressure and public expectation in Oakland these days as a result of the increased oversight and monitoring of our police department.  The public has been promised much in the way of reforms, better service, smarter policing, something about community policing (but noone is quite sure what that means), better management (by having multiple people in charge presumably?) and a safer city overall.  All the high powered, well compensated experts and consultants in town come with varied baggage and success and all have something important to offer this city.  There is one thing that does seem to unify them all (Frazier, Wasserman, Bratton): data. They all talk up the importance of having and using good data. Data to drive geographic policing or hotspot policing, data for investigations, data for tracking processes and data to spot trends and patterns.

We’ve had some version of the popular model of CompStat in Oakland for a few years now, Batts implemented it when we were still contracting for him to do crime analysis.  Every city does it differently, as they should, and every city understands it slightly differently.  If you still see that word and think it means a computer system or program then please consider yourself corrected- it’s not a program, a piece of software, despite its name. It’s a method, a process. You could do it with pen and paper if you were a genius. Most of us prefer computers however. When things get tight in any city or company you have two options commonly considered- do much less, or try to be smarter and do more with less. Sure there are other options, but this is a blog, not a PhD.  With ~635 sworn officers Oakland has to get smarter. CompStat approaches can help but they are not THE answer. (Given this post was drafted a week ago, new today from Bratton’s report is important context for this: “The city’s Compstat process was more of a "presentation by a captain than a system of vigorous strategic oversight.”“ Source)

There is a fascinating battle raging (perhaps that’s overdramatic- but it’s saturday and I have a good beer open), between some respected academics overtheir opinions/statements on the validity of things like the actual impact of CompStat and other policing strategies, especially from NYCPD. New York is a favorite because of the huge size and corresponding huge samples in data availability, it’s massive drop in crime counts over 20 years and it’s scandals and successes.

When we move to a model where our police department is truly/heavily data driven (no I do not believe it is this way currently) we must be aware of the good and the bad of this approach, and more importantly be aware of the ways this approach can be abused.  Trust in police in Oakland is incredibly low and this is sad, wrong, broken, disgusting etc etc. On all angles. There is much to do to repair this and I propose that we must, it’s not an ok thing to maintain the status quo here.  But with more numbers involved, better reporting and better analysis and communication of these data (that’s the plan right?) comes an increase in the types of activities that have sullied new York City’s reputation and cast valid doubts over the veracity of the crime reduction facts touted there.

Whenever there is a major change in policy or practice we should, as a smart society, be evaluating the impact of these changes. Better sign-up process for food stamps online? You should see an uptake in enrollment – if not you’re missing something. That kind of simple evaluation.  Change the police reporting for multiple types of basic crimes including burglaries so people can only report them online now and no officer will show? You should be providing solid numbers to the public and the city administration on the trends in all those crimes as well as numbers on closure and conviction for those crimes. Things don’t stop at a report- if your reports go up, are you finding more people, less, no change? Any answer means something and should be critically be considered to see what it tells us.

When OPD ramps up it’s technology (Oh God let it be soon) and data use and builds its capacity for dynamic use of CompStat methods we will need to be ever more vigilant of the types of manipulation that have been documented in New York City.  Eterno & Silverman have a book in print that does a stunning job of documenting the abuses of the NYCPD to manipulate the numbers used in the CompStat program, it’s expensive, sorry.  It provides what to me are the most comprehensive and broad analytical assessments of the claims of crime reduction in New York City and shows them to be fraudulent and false overall.  Knowing the kinds of improbable realities they describe should position Oakland’s city staff and our community well to judge if these things begin to occur in Oakland.  For example, if we hear claims of reduction in assaults by 50%, yet our hospitalization reports increase by 90% we should be asking what the hell is going on.  Crime data are in my experience the most manipulated and most misleading figures in common use. Pressure from senior officers to suppress major crime statistics is something that will erode the remaining trust in OPD and will not have a positive impact on crime and violence prevention in our city.

If you want to see more of the critique of Zimring’s ideas that are quite relevant to Oakland check out this brief -then buy the book 😉


Open Data Day in Oakland! it’s official baby.

 At City Council on Tues 19th, Oakland officially declares Saturday 23rd, 2013 to be recognized as Open Data Day! Wahooo!

This is a great step for our city to be officially recognizing the importance of a number of things we’ve been pushing and supporting for some time. The resolution (linked below) recognizes:


Full resolution text below, linking to a PDF is just too ironic for an open data win! Speaking of such, anyone down to work on getting all city notices out of PDF and into machine readable text? Yes, then join us!


WHEREAS, Open Data represents the idea that information such as government databases should be
easily and freely available to everyone to use and republish without restrictions; and

WHEREAS, Open Data increases transparency, access to public information, and improves
coordination and efficiencies among agencies and partner organizations; and

WHEREAS, access to public information promotes a higher level of civic engagement and allows
citizens to provide valuable feedback to government officials regarding local issues; and

WHEREAS, this month Oakland has formally announced the launch of its open data platform
“data.oaklandnet.com,” that will serve as the central repository of the City of Oakland’s public data, such as
data on crime, public works, public facilities, and spatial data, allowing all users to freely access, visualize
and download City data, enabling public scrutiny and empowering the creativity of civic-minded software
developers; and

WHEREAS, Oakland was honored to be selected as one of only ten cities in America to participate in
the 2013 Code for America (CFA) program, where three CFA fellows will work with the City to identify web-
based solutions to break down cumbersome bureaucratic processes and emerge with better systems that will
help cut costs, increase efficiency, and provide better service to the public; and

WHEREAS, Open Data activists have recently founded the civic innovation organization Open Oakland
– a Code for America Brigade, which meets every Tuesday evening in City Hall, bringing together coders,
designers, “data geeks,” journalists, and city staff to collaborate on solutions to improve Oakland’s service
delivery to all citizens of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, on December 1, 2012 Open Oakland produced the first ever “CityCamp Oakland,” inside
city hall, where over 100 stakeholders came together to discuss solutions to improve Oakland; and

WHEREAS, Oakland recently launched a community engagement web site called
“EngageOakland.com,” to encourage community ideas, feedback and suggestions to help shape, grow and
sustain the healthy future of Oakland; and

WHEREAS, “February 23, 2013 is International Data Day,” a day in which citizens around the world
will gather to access Open Data, write applications, create visualizations, publish analyses, and encourage the
adoption of open data policies at the local, regional and national government levels; and


WHEREAS, on February 23, 2013 at Oakland’s 81st Avenue Branch Library, Open Oakland, in honor
of International Open Data Day, will host a day of “hacking” public data and building data visualization tools to
help explain data and make stronger community-government connections; therefore be it

RESOLVED: That the City Council hereby declares February 23, 2013 as Open Data Day in the City
of Oakland; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED: That in honor of International Open Data Day the City Council hereby
recognizes and salutes Open Oakland founders Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejada; Oakland’s 2013 Code For
America Fellows Richa Agarwal, Cris Cristina and Sheila Dugan, and Oakland’s Code for America sponsors:
The Akonadi Foundation, The William H. Donner Foundation, The Robert A.D. Schwartz Fund, The Mitchell
Kapor Foundation, Accela and Pandora, for their service to the City of Oakland and its citizens.

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/