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 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:

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:
Code for America
Kapor Foundation
The Oakland Tribune
Urban Strategies Council
The Kapor Foundation
Oakland Local
OpenShift/Red Hat
The City of Oakland

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 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, 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:

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:

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

Code for America in Oaktown: The OpenOakland Brigade!

Today we’re launching the official Oakland Brigade: OpenOakland.

If you’re new to Code for America then you’ve been missing out. If you know them, you may not yet know about the Brigade teams. This is the start of a new brigade to create and redeploy civic innovations, liberate public data, spur innovation within government and bring the excitement of opensource tech to the east bay community!

What we’re looking for is a core group of software developers, engineers, designers and data hounds who see the power of open tech to solve civic issues in Oaktown. We’ll be setting up some goals for the next 12 months, and we need creative people to help lift up tech in our city and showcase the ways opengov can really transform this town. The expectations on Brigade members aren’t heavy, but we will need consistent efforts and communication- wasting our spare time is wack.

We’ll be supporting civic tech events, hackathons, government forums and more and will be meeting regularly to plan, scheme and develop key tools to bring civic change.

Our first challenge as a Brigade is to stand up CKAN– an opensource OPENDATA platform. We need to show the City of Oakland that this can be built in and for our community. We’ll also be using this platform as the data repo for the next Code for Oakland hackathon!

If you want to be a part of this, or just hit the first meeting to see if it fits your life then join the CfA Brigade here:

Email the group: openoakland at

Hit me @spjika or @openoakland to connect!

This will be fun.

This will be disruptive.

This will bring Oakland closer to truly Open Government, Open Data and innovation by default!

We will have beer at Brigade meetings.

If they were really about social justice they would be more concerned with fighting crime than data.

Senior Oakland City Official about our opengov release on the lack of data behind the 100 Blocks Public Safety Plan.

Code for Oakland- Volunteer Mixer

Are you a programmer, coder, mobile developer, engineer, product manage, UI/UX designer or some other tech loving person who wants to improve our city using technology?

If the answer is yes, and you’d like to get involved in this year’s Code for Oakland – the Oakland and East Bay-focused hackathon scheduled for July 21, right here in Oakland at the Kaiser Center near the lake – please come to the first Volunteer Mixer where you can meet and join the core Code for Oakland team and help make something really cool happen.

We’re looking for volunteers for the following teams:

Data catalog: Help pull together date developers can use to build apps for Oakland. We’re working with both local state, city and county data and national data sets that have local value.

Team Leads:
Steve Spiker, Urban Strategies, Nicole Neditch, city of Oakland

Logistics and day of: Who, what, when, where, wires and wireless–this critical team makes sure we have a space, volunteers to check people in, food, drinks and a nice after party–and maybe some cool T-shirts? If you’re good at getting things done, we could use your help.

Team Lead: Anca Mosoiu

Marketing and Promotion: We want everyone to know about the Hack Day and the programs we’re putting on July 21, so folks with skills in marketing, social media promotion and event management are needed.

Team Lead: Krys Freeman

Outreach and Community: The focus may be tech, but the problems we want to solve are those many in Oakland experience. Help plan and present some listening sessions and events that empower community members to share ideas for apps to build.

Team Leads: Paul Richardson, Matt Senate

Programming: What’s on the agenda day of? Who are the judges, speakers, presenters as we kick off our hack day–and what’s the format for those who wish to attend to learn, not to code? Help plan a great program.

Team Lead: Susan Mernit

Sponsorships: Want to help make sure this event – and the prizes for developers who build products – get funded? Join the Sponsorship team to help make the costs balance out.

Team Lead: Deb Acosta

Sustainability: How do we make sure we USE what our hack teams build–and how do we help these teams finish what they start? This is a critical question – and one we hope everyone who works on Code for Oakland and has an interest can help address – just let us know you’d like to be involved.

We have about two months till the event. We’ll be meeting every two weeks for an hour in the evening and working virtually through tools like Google Docs, Basecamp and possibly a wiki to coordinate.

If you’d like to participate, RSVP to our invite and come to our Volunteer Mixer at Tech Liminal to sign up for a team to work with.

The Deets


When: May 29, Tech Liminal, 6-8 p.m.

Where: 268 14 St., Oakland

More info:

And coming from behind: Alameda County to adopt OpenData!

Some days you get pleasant surprises. Some days bureaucrats really do get stuff done. Some days government staff really do agree and align their efforts with those of the elected leaders who typically just butt heads with those they lead. Yesterday was one of those days.

Alameda County is going to be adopting an opendata platform this year, with either a live portal or an alpha version for internal review by the board of supervisors retreat in September. Just like that. Well, not quite that easy. Late last year we were part of a new committee setup by Supervisor Nate Miley to examine ways to integrate data between agencies and after some initial discussions we pushed the group to consider the value of making much of these data available to the public. We delivered a few demos on our web mapping and data tools and developed some materials showing the benefits, principles and reasons for opendata in governement. As with the City of Oakland I drafted a policy piece, some guidelines on how to select data within each department and a guide to implementing opendata across the county. Couple meetings happen, then nothing, silencio.

But during the silence the county was actually doing something constructive. Albeit choosing a vendor (some things don’t change), one with a heavy monopoly, but still making a good decision for the county. Alameda County will be rolling out a Socrata portal.  Now I do like their tools, they make an excellent product, I’m just saddened to see a steady monopoly in a space that is all about openness, opensource and innovation. Personal grievance aside, this is GREAT!

There is now some real momentum to this working committee to make something happen. Socrata got the nod because it’s just so damn easy, turnkey and all that. I can’t disagree, it really lowers the barrier to entry for agencies without the opensource chops to stand up a CKAN instance, sadly, and that will likely be the same scenario in most US cities I’m guessing, although it will be interesting to see just what Junar can come up with.

There’s a lot of work to do, many agencies have reservations, many have piss-poor data ecosystems and this seems threatening, but there is some exciting progress, including the sheriff agreeing to publish their data in a usable format for the first time publicly. Did you know that Alameda’s sheriff published block level (hmm) crime data to for the past year? I didn’t, not that it matters much when you only publish government data into one closed, average system.

Our next step is to work through some issues that we’ve discovered within the county systems in the course of our work- serious data deficiencies that only a small does of modernizing would yield some serious gains. We’re also hoping to get a couple of new data sets released in time for the next #CodeforOakland hackathon on July 21st. I’ll also be curious to see if a larger urban county can help to pull up some of the smaller cities in it’s coverage to use their same data platform.

What is surprising is that despite their being serious approval of this effort at an elected leader level there isn’t a desire to formalize this effort in legislation, policy or directive. I suggested that this rare circumstance of staff and leaders wanting the same thing is the perfect opportunity to get supporting legislation or directives in place- partly to sustain it beyond the current champions and also to really leverage these good efforts. It’s really wonderful to see county staff and leaders working in the same direction- it’s not as common as you may think. Once again technology and data are really capable of bringing about cultural and functional changes beyond their seemingly innocuous scope of impact. Geeks unite, open government is creeping forward.

Calling on the Mayor – Show coders some love!

Once again, in another California city not too far, far away, a city is showing leadership and is capturing the talents, passions and excitement of an incredibly valuable, natural resource- the tech community. Sounds like San Diego had a cracking hackathon last month and some interesting new tools were built, but most importantly this event was endorsed, supported and the key apps from the competition will be sustained with help from the Mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders.

In Oaktown we have seen some interest in this world expressed by a few city councilors so far, although barely two city staff attended the main Code for Oakland event last year and none attended the OpenData Hackathon later in 2011. It seems our new deputy city administrator Scott Johnson is interested in the developer world and how it can benefit our city but once again, to really move stuff we need the support of our Mayor. Please understand the huge potential for the city and it’s residents. This is not a bunch of OWS hackers looking to jack with the system, we’re (others at least are…) a community of immensely talented, broadly experienced, civicly interested software developers, coders, builders, engineers, scientists who would love to get some love from our city leaders.

Just had to vent a little. I hate wasted opportunities 😉

OpenData v Absentee Councilors

After all the excitement (mostly on my part) of finally seeing an opendata resolution making its way through city hall, just like that, pow, it’s off again. At a Finance Committee Meeting, two city councilors (Brooks, and the committee Chair, De La Fuente) didn’t show, rendering the meeting null, no quorum, hence no vote to support an opendata resolution for Oakland, hence no change happening yet, no better engagement with the tech community, no new start-up possibilities encouraged just yet…

We are on the agenda now for the next month… sure this can wait, but every extra month it takes is an extra month where our city isn’t improving, isn’t getting better PR, isn’t enabling innovative new solutions that government data can help unlock. And that’s a shame.