Spike ‏@spjika : Busy night in @Oakland city hall, hackers working on civic issues for our city w…

Spike ‏@spjika : Busy night in @Oakland city hall, hackers working on civic issues for our city w @openoakland

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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.

Beyond compliance, beyond reports: Data for Action

First posted here.

A week ago the famous Napa region was shaken by a 6.0 scale earthquake resulting in serious damage to buildings, injuries and disruptions in services to a large area. This is something residents in the Bay Area have come to expect and we are all waiting for the next “big one”, overdue in most experts opinion.

The same week, our team launched a new app in response to the disaster.

Oakland is a city with a severe housing shortage, building anger towards gentrification and the unmeasured but very real displacement of low income residents who have called this city home for decades.  It is also home to 1,378 large apartment buildings that are at varying risks of collapse in a quake centered closer to Oakland. The City of Oakland and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) have studied this issue and over half these buildings have been screened – but over 550 remain to be screened for risk.  Many homes have been found to be safe, while 609 buildings (home to thousands of residents in apartments) have been found to be as serious risk – called potential Soft Story buildings – they have a large open ground level such as storage or garages that will potentially collapse in a quake- rendering those homes uninhabitable – an instant loss of thousands of affordable housing units protected under rent control – any housing units built to replace them will surely not be affordable, resulting in very rapid push out of poorer residents.

So why do we civic hackers care about this? It’s a matter of equity and a matter of many residents without good access to information relevant to their living situation- without information, no-one can act. Unfortunately, the common practice in government is to collect information and store it neatly in a report that floats around city hall as a PDF. The data live on a server somewhere, called on only when needed. We greatly respect the proactive work the City and ABAG have done in the screening efforts, however there remains a large number of homes unscreened and there are still thousands of renters with no idea of their risk- either through damage and injury or through displacement after the quake- as a result of rent increases applied by landlords passing on retrofitting costs – Oakland’s rent control policy sadly does not clarify whether seismic retrofitting costs are borne by the landlord or tenant or both.

Some months ago we convinced ABAG and the City of Oakland to publish the data from these surveys – a complicated inventory because of the changing status of buildings as they are screened and retrofitted.  We had been planning to build a new app that would raise awareness of this issue to spur action – both for tenant rights groups and for the city to determine a policy for handling these costs and for ensuring homes in Oakland are safe for residents. After the quake we realised it was an important moment to raise this issue – so we sprinted to release a new app that helps renters and homeowners see the status of their building: http://softstory.openoakland.org.  

Our approach is to build tools that puts information in the hands of the public in a way they can act on it. In this case, the formal report is a good document, but it serves policy makers only, it does not inform nor empower those living in these homes.  This simple app lets any resident see how their building is rated – as exempt and not a soft story building, as retrofitted and safe or as potentially soft-story and at risk in a big quake.  

We’ve advocated for open data with local governments for this very reason (and others) – data can be used to fill up reports with snippets and summaries that help decision makers, but there should be a default to open with all data that has no legal reason to be protected – this information, in the hands of those actually affected by it can do radically more than if it were still sitting on a government hard drive somewhere in city hall!

What has Technology done for Equity lately?

George Packer recently published a fantastic piece on the inward focus of the Silicon Valley tech world.  It wasn’t enjoyable to read, more frustrating and angering over the ignorance around what the tech sector is doing to drive inequality in our country and how the tech boom has accelerated the push-out of middle class people from San Francisco. I do love me some ultra geekery and love my gadgets, but I also know that those things are not changing the world like some of us think they are.

I was struck by this line:

It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.

I’ve maintained a foot in both the social justice and the tech camps for many years now and have used this to drive the direction for our work in OpenOakland just like in my work at Urban Strategies Council.  I don’t buy solutionism and I don’t at all see OpenOakland as operating with such a mindset- we are not even close to drinking this kool aid.  I can see a future in which Oakland is a city that embraces the opportunities that cutting edge tech represents but also a city that nurtures it’s current residents and provides opportunities for our children to participate broadly in the new creative industry job boom.

There is one approach that has been adopted by FWD.us and SF.Citi that seems to have moved quickly from a tech organizing on issues that matter to society broadly into self serving protectionism with a push for policies and immigration reform to make it easier for tech companies to profit and to source foreign skilled labor to fuel the innovation workforce.  This is not a future I want to see bleeding over into Oakland.  It’s a future that blindly disregards the fact that our school systems are not producing a pipeline of young people of color who are ready for and interested in the tech/creative sector, but instead seeks short term, easy solutions to the massive labor shortage in the internet sector.  The actions of Mitch & Frieda Kapor and the new Kapor Center reflect the soul and spirit of Oakland- identify areas of opportunity that can result in a culture shift in the tech sector and a new energizing of young people of color to gain the skills and exposure needed to succeed in this sector.  Instead of focusing on short term profitability, think about how the structural inequities in our country can be changed to benefit our entire country, not just some Valley start-ups.

We are trying to demonstrate a better way forward with OpenOakland too.  We see the lack of accessibility and openness of local government as a barrier to active citizen engagement and a limiting factor in the attraction and sustaining of local businesses.  We see the need to reform how government acquires and implements technology as a root issue that must change in order for our governments to truly act as a platform to support strong, healthy cities and are working to change this in our city.  We are focused on civic technology that changes things for the better and solves real issues across the city. 

To put this in perspective let me lay out some of our work and the other work to come out of the Oaktown civic hacking efforts in the past two years:

  • OpenbudgetOakland.org – a site that allows all residents to understand their city budget in context for the first time ever. So clear and understandable that city officials were surprised at the numbers themselves.
  • Txt2Wrk – An app from the first Code for Oakland that helped connect reentry population to local jobs using a feature phone.
  • Councilmatic – almost ready to launch! This app tackles the single biggest barrier to residents being more engaged in their civic process- the impossibility of finding out what City Council is doing!
  • EarlyOakland.com – a simple way to help parents find free and low cost early child care and education
  • CityCamp Oakland – the first every unconference in Oakland that connected city officials with residents and technologists and smooth the path to more open government in future.
  • Oakland Answers – a collaboratively built city FAQ website that helps people find city information as easily as google lets you find street directions. Open source tech built by the people, for the people.

What we’re seeing is that technology can be used for good, it can be transformational, if you care about that.  We don’t want Oakland to end up being an eastern suburb of San Francisco, we want our city to further develop its own tech culture and to leverage the talent we have for the benefit of our city. I’ve been humbled and blown away by the generosity and community love that our OpenOakland crew have shown in this first year of our existence.  We have ~120 people signed up and 30 Oaklanders show up in city hall on a weekly basis- to work on projects where better tech can transform our city, our government and our communities. 

If you feel like doing A/B testing of email and web page design is not perhaps the most you can do with your skills and you love Oakland, you can join us and help make our city even better!  We need more help, we’re moving forward on our digital divide assessment, broad community engagement and much more- not just technology solutionism. That means there is a role for you to contribute and a place where people who dig open government and engaged communities can work and innovate together.  Come by one Tuesday night or just share your ideas with us!

Also read the full, excellent, rather long piece by George Packer on the New Yorker here.

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/

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.

A City Staffer and attendee of CityCamp Oakland talking about OpenOakland!

Finally a CityCamp in Oakland!

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

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

cco

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

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

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

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

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

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

CityCampOak.org

Open Government in Oakland’s Elections

This month the OpenOakland brigade launched the OpenGov Pledge for all candidates seeking election for Oakland’s City Council and Attorney seats. As of today we have nine candidates who have signed on to our campaign in just a couple of days work, check out who has been quick to the draw and which of your local candidates have yet to commit here:

OaklandCandidates.org

Why would an organization of techs, software developers, engineers and advocates bother with something like a pledge?  It’s because this community is being activated more than ever to participate and to become active, engaged citizens, and we’re bringing with us many of the ideals, perspectives and design approaches common in opensource technology development community. Openness, collaboration, sharing, networked communities and networked project teams.

From our perspective we believe that open government is important for a thriving and accountable democracy. With the technology that exists today, government and citizen can interact with one another in ways that were unimaginable before. By opening conduits from which the public can communicate with government and access the pertinent information about their city, the needs of the public are better served.

One powerful (and commonly referred to) example of how a commitment to open government can better serve the public is by offering taxpayer-produced data online in a free and easily accessible format. A web portal can be a clearinghouse for public data without the need to engage in potentially lengthy and costly public record requests. Such initiatives, which can be powered with open source technology as we are demonstrating, could save the city money and time while also allowing the public easy access to important information immediately.

As OpenOakland, we’re asking all 2012 candidates for City Council and City Attorney to express support for open government principles by signing the candidate open government pledge, here. Similar pledges were signed by mayoral candidates in San Francisco in 2011 and Honolulu this year.

We all recognize that Oakland is poised for greatness, however this will only be fully realized should governance be improved. We thank candidates for showing they believe in Oakland through their candidacies. We want all those running and all voters to know that the Oakland tech community is eager to pitch in to help you make good, responsive, transparent, open government a reality!

Lastly we are not undertaking this pledge as a means of political maneuvering, as a way to shame any candidates or as a tool to later use as a weapon against anyone, OpenOakland will always be a nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization with a focus and a habit of doing positive, supportive things in ways that lift up our community.  We believe this is important and that our candidates need to know that opengov is a serious issue and that there is a local and worldwide community looking to help them make this a reality, especially when it comes to using technology in new, creative ways!