Striving for better: Diversity in Civic Tech

There are many parts of my life where I’m really comfortable. I love talking about justice and social struggles, love talking about race, the reality of inequality and what it does to our society, human trafficking/sex slavery and the push back I get from pro-sex workers that this even matters. I’m also comfortable talking about diversity, the lack of it and how the tech sector and others need to ditch the status quo and it’s unjust implications. What I haven’t loved, haven’t been comfortable with, is people being critical of and even attacking an organization I‘ve led and helped built over the past two years. I’m uncomfortable because, despite some unloving offenses, those complaining have been largely right.

Most civic hack nights in Oakland’s city hall sees a wonderful balance of males and females all working on tech, engagement and design challenges to make our city a better place. Some weeks the balance shifts to more men, other weeks it’s female dominated. And I feel like this is something worth celebrating, being glad about. We’ve made real efforts to make sure men and women are included, encouraged to lead projects (not just do design- an early trend we identified and tackled) and to be part of our formative leadership team in strong numbers. But despite this one good thing, this rare gender balance in a tech sector full of macho bullshit, we’re still not doing enough, but we’re about to change that.

We’re way too white.

I’d love to deny it, but it’s real. Despite our co-founders being white and latino, and guys, our leadership team and our general membership is very much mismatched with the demographics of the city we serve. We’ve spent much of 2014 talking, listening, growing and building as an organization, and despite the intentions, despite the genuine desire for a fully inclusive organization, it hasn’t just happened. So we’re stepping up on this area. We say we’re lean, we’re adaptive, well that has to apply to all facets of our organization.

We declare a value of building with, not for (the people we seek to serve), and to us that also means that “us” must be all of us, not just those who’ve chosen to walk through the doors and get involved. So what are we doing? For starters, we’re making an intentional push for diversity in our leadership recruitment (about to launch). And we’re putting our money where our mouth is. We don’t have much funding yet, but in our first serious investment from Code for America, our main expense is a fantastic consulting firm who we’ve hired to help us develop strategies to ensure that our leadership, our advisory board and our membership becomes as diverse as our city.

We’ve asked our new partner to take on a layer of screening that will result in a more diverse candidate pool for us to pick from, and to work with us to do targeted outreach to local leaders who could play a role in our organization- people from a broader pool than our current reach generates. We’ve seen this as necessary- if the same group of people ask their friends to participate, we don’t stand a good chance of succeeding, of building a diverse leadership team. If our foundation isn’t solid, it won’t matter how good our apps are, we’ll never be “of the people, for the people” to get all patriotic and shit like that. While this partnership is our first big step, it won’t be our last, we know there’s a lot more hard work to do on this front.

As we roll into this brave new world of awkward moments and honest conversations about how we will get to who we want to be, I’m very proud of our current team and their efforts to move in this direction, to accept we’re not as diverse as we want nor as pro-active as we need to be. But we’re all prepared to do this, to learn, to be humbled and to grow, with the added strength, insights and trust that a really Oaklandish team will give us.

My invitation to others is twofold — join us, especially if you want to be part of something great, and also encourage us and give us constructive criticism along the way, but also forgive us if we’re not perfect, if we make mistakes. We give a shit. We are not cool with the status quo. We need you to help make this better.

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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!
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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.

Already Beyond the Data Portal

I was inspired by a recent piece by the wonderful @jedsundwall on his gov3.0 blog about the need to be going beyond data portals (much like a recent book I contributed too focuses on BeyondTransparency, shameless plug yes).

Jed totally hits it with this assessment of a growing attitude in local government towards just getting the data out:

It’s time to acknowledge that data is not made useful simply by making it available online. As we work to make data open and available, we also need to train people who can help make it accessible and useful.

In cities locally and globally the concept of open data is being pitched by vendors as a simple, turnkey thing they purchase and simply check it off their list of good government tasks.  Not enough cities have realized that this huge data resource is an amazingly underutilized and under-leveraged resource for them. In Oakland, so much of the data being published leaves much to be desired and leads to dozens of new questions about the source, quality, meaning and completeness of these data, but the city isn’t really embracing this as a way to engage the community and to see these data reach more of their potential.

Jed goes on to suggest an alternative reality where data support exists side by side with the data portals:

You’re doing your research, but you’ve heard of the San Diego Regional Data Library. You go to its website and see that you can email, call, or chat online with a data librarian who can help you find the information you need. You call the library and speak with a librarian who tells you that the data you need is provided by the county rather than the city. You also learn about datasets available from California’s Department of Transportation, a non-profit called BikeSD, Data.gov and some other data from the city that hasn’t been opened up yet.

This is where my two worlds collide. The #opendata & #opengov world is leading and pushing from a certain position, mostly not connected to the existing community research, indicator and data world and the community indicators world has been slow in embracing this brave new world of easy access to data.  We need to get along, to understand each others positions and intentions and we can really make this #datadriven world matter for our communities.

The concept of a data library is very similar to what groups like Urban Strategies Council have been doing for 15 years with our InfoAlamedaCounty.org project.  For a long time we’ve seen the need to provide communities with reliable research and data to drive action and we’ve struggled to get access to data for this entire time. 

We formed the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership in 1992 with the Urban Institute to help build the field nationally to help empower more communities in just this way- we have a mandate to publish data and make usable, actionable information to communities equally. Our partner organizations in 37 cities have local knowledge and regional knowledge, expertise in community development, reentry, public safety, economic development, education and health, so we’re able to not just provide raw and improved data, we’re able to be an active, responsive voice in or communities to make more data actionable.

Many NNIP partners are starting to embrace the open data world and this is a powerful recipe for a data driven future that is focused on equity in our cities- most NNIP partners have a social mission as opposed to just doing data in a cold, calculated way.  But the unfortunate truth is that as our cities are becoming more data rich, many NNIP partners are facing declining funding to help support community uses of data.  It would be a mistake for funders to largely lose interest in community data intermediaries (not a sexy concept) in the excitement over open data, because none of these data become actionable and meaningful without serious support, engagement and use.

The data library is a great concept, and our experience in Oakland and many other cities says there’s huge need and value for such an entity.  Our cities can themselves play some part by being more engaged through their open data resources, but that’s never going to be enough, just like Chicago has fantastic staff who engage, there’s still a role for the Smart Chicago Collaborative effort to bring that power out to communities across the city.

More data, more engagement, more power to the people?

The incredible agency of #opendata

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

Can “Open Data” Improve Democratic Governance?

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

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

Hell No.

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

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

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

So yes, Opening Data can do much.

Scale and demand

Reading a piece on the Detroit Assessors efforts to reassess every property in the city really struck me – I don’t think this is at all unique to Detroit either, but the scale of effort required by our laws and necessary in order to support a productive, fair urban society is seriously out of wack with our local governments abilities.

Horhn said the city has 11 assessors for nearly 386,000 parcels. That’s 35,000 parcels per assessor, nearly nine times the state recommendation of 4,000.

We have a legacy of heavy state, federal and local legislation that requires different agencies to carry out specific tasks, but over time those requirements have evolved, grown (sometimes ended too) yet the funding for many agencies has not grown with the ask.  Short of some incredible and super reliable innovation, there is no way on earth that this assessors workforce can ever meet their mandate. This is one more case of the requirements never being met and the result is obviously not good for the city of Detroit.  As government slowly becomes more open, more such situations will be discovered, forcing us to ask more difficult questions about the way we do things, the expectations and the layered regulations that impact us on the local level.

Somewhat like the issues Oakland faces with a heavily reduced police force (in large part budget related) and increasing crime. There’s no way to do this without being smarter, much smarter. I’m not going to suggest that technology is the solution, but I’m sure that there are smarter ways to do things that do use technology, people and processes better!

STORY

Lost Opportunities?

The news today that a San Francisco Fire Captain was wearing a helmet mounted video camera during the Asiana crash rescue was quite something. Tragic details about the unnecessary death of the young traveler were caught on his camera providing priceless, objective information for the investigations and for reviewing procedures. This kind of information is not easy to digest nor is it something to be dismissed, yet that seems to have been the bureaucratically protective and regressive stance taken by the SF Fire Chief.

The Chief declared all cameras prohibited for fire dept staff. Blanket. Reinforcing a 2009 rule, this puts a clear message in writing for all to see. No cameras on duty. In any Fire Dept facilities.

There are numerous problems with this, some well detailed in the article.

Firstly this is a poorly timed public statement- when said video evidence is seeming indicting your own department for a horrible accident, now is not the time to ban all such devices- unless you straight up want to look  protectionist and in over-up mode. Who really wants that?

Secondly, it shows a poor leadership approach. Given that multiple fireys seem to be wearing the devices and the Captain in question stated these are extremely valuable training and learning tools, it sends the wrong message that common innovative practice is frowned upon and not welcome. Bad move.  Instead or rewarding creativity and progress, the Chief is slamming it.

Lastly, and this may be a behind the scenes reality, the Chief is losing the opportunity to learn from a delicate and tough situation – failing to adapt the new knowledge available and use it in the smartest way possible.  The message to the department and the public should have been that the use of cameras has been forbidden in the past, but this incident brings up a valuable perspective and the chance to review this policy and to develop solid guidelines for the safe, privacy protecting use of cameras in future.

HIPPA isn’t some bogeyman that disallows all information collection, it’s a set of guidelines as to what you can and cannot do. The use of helmet and other mounted cameras seems like an incredible value to our fire and rescue forces.   Good leadership takes a innovative approach to legal limitations and finds ways to support the good thinking of staff. 

Simply reiterating the public message that cameras are banned presents all the wrong messages.

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.