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

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Opinion: We want to push out poor, dumb, unwanted black people

[This represents my opinion and is not in any way an official statement from my organization.]

Today my team held a press conference and launched a new report examining the role of private investors/speculators in post-foreclosure Oakland. Check it all here. We started this research project as a result of some data mining we were doing with foreclosure data- trying to develop better strategies to help stop, prevent or recover foreclosures. We noticed some names coming up over and over- not the names of banks, the names of new investment corporations. So we dug, and found enough interesting content to justify a full report: Investors have acquired two of every five foreclosed properties in Oakland- with 93% being located in the poorer flatlands. The same neighborhoods hit hardest by predatory lending of subprime loans that kicked off this here housing crisis.

The first article to drop in the press today stunned me, this article from Aaron Glantz of the Bay Citizen tells a great story of an Oakland homeowner who loses his home as a result of an injury and subsequent job loss. An investor buys it,then flips it shortly after for a substantial profit. Instead of the bank adjusting the guy’s mortgage, it forecloses, losing serious value in the long term but getting a huge cash injection on the spot- very important given how little profit our banks are making? The investor, or speculator, in this case receives the equity gain- the same equity gains our parents have built up in their homes over decades- although in this case the gains are not enriching our middle class nor working families, but corporations, equity firms and hedge funds. We call that wealth transfer, or #WealthTransfer.

What stunned me was the response of the representative from Sullivan (connected to REO Homes- one of the two biggest speculators):

“We want to bring in good, productive people and really change the area”

In a city with such protracted battles over gentrification, both planned and organic, this is a profound statement. For these “investors”, cash gets them cheap housing and easy profits, and their greed prevents local families from competing to acquire homes of their own- the great American dream. When someone will tell a journalist in Oakland that they want to “bring in” – “good, productive people” the message is clear to Oakland’s historically diverse residents-

if you’re poor or working class, if you’re black or brown, then you’re lazy and we don’t want you in this neighborhood- get out so we can make some money.

I’m really stunned that this rep would make such a clearly racist statement. There’s no grounds upon which you can claim that is not a clearly racist, anti-poor statement. If we need to “bring in” good people from SF, we clearly don’t have good people here already do we now, noone good or noone trying to buy a home to own and grow old in and hopefully see some equity and wealth growth of their own, some basis of stability to hand down to their children when they get old. This is once again how wealth is stripped from poor and working class communities across the USA, especially communities of color. Our society and our formerly strong middle class have been strengthened by families paying off their homes and retiring with modest wealth- and eventually these families pass on this wealth to their children. When this sustains and grows we call it “old money” and this clearly helps to sustain and strengthen communities. There are no good motives for trying to deny the chance to build wealth amongst communities of color, but this is clearly a result of such practices.

Topping this off, on the way home from the press conference, I pulled up at a traffic light across from my office, next to a property developer in his truck, to overhear two white guys conversing about this issue, the stand out:

“we’ve got to find someone who can help us deal with these negroes.”

I kid you not. Racism is alive and well in Oakland, no doubt about it. This is why I won’t be out of a job anytime soon.

Here’s my interview on KPFA this morning about this also: MP3.

Barriers or Processes?

In the past couple of days I’ve had informative meetings with two high level city officials (separately) and both have progressed in a good direction until we come to a topic that has a potential legal implication for the city. At this point an idea that was moving along nicely hits what is perceived as a real barrier to implementation or change in an area of the city structure that needs improvement. As the opengov, gov2.0 and other shifts in understanding of government grow we are seeing more and more innovative, creative solutions to common problems, many of which are highlighted on the CivicCommons.org platform. These barriers that end all hope of change because of the legal nature of information release or the legal requirements to get a new method cleared seemed analogous to the barriers faced by agencies adopting new, agile, open technologies: one city takes the hit and does the grunt work to make the policy, implement the new tech and publish their journey for the world to see. Call it the Code for America effect. (On waking today I realize the CfA effect has already been claimed and is slightly different from what I’ve implied, so I’ll redub this the CivicCommons Effect, didn’t intend to steal someone else’s idea 😉 )

To my (naive) mind, this very same scenario is the death of many city innovations, changes and policy improvements:

  1. Great new idea for city.
  2. Plan for idea to be made real.
  3. Idea hits legal clearance or policy barrier, lawyers say too hard, not worth it.
  4. Idea dead.
  5. Change stalled, hope lost.
  6. Business as usual.

As I thought more about these perceived barriers I thought of the other nearby cities that have faced and solved these very same issues. And in each case it seems really clear to me that these issues present not as real barriers (hence insurmountable, undo-able, impossible) but merely as processes. And processes can be followed everywhere.

If one city attorney or county counsel decides something is risky, illegal, uncomfortable, should this be treated as a barrier with all the anticipated costs, struggle, blood, sweat and frustration as such a barrier should? What if the next city across has been through the same damn thing and come out with a working solution? To me the issue is then just a process, one to be followed, tweaked and adjusted to suit but still a process, and a process is not expensive, time consuming nor daunting.

It’s essentially applying an open source software model to government issues. I have a need, I’m stuck on something and have no budget to hire a consultant to build the fix/system for my issue. But if I can find an open sourced solution that someone else built to solve just this issue, I can just take their great work and tweak it to suit my local need, wallah (infer sexy french accent here), I now have a solution and no big capital investment.

Why should every city government treat the same issues as unique barriers? If one has pushed through a solution, why would we try to face the issue as a barrier? If we change our mode of thinking we are now viewing this issue simply as a process to follow. I’m not trying to simplify complex scenarios nor to undervalue thoughtful planning, but I don’t see how we can view the same problems as unique, over and over again. Take the hard work others have done before us, leverage it for our city and residents benefit, and do the same with out struggles and wins- publish our process successes and our common software solutions and share in the efficiencies and collaborations that can strengthen our governments and improve their operation.

To wit, this is exactly how I’m approaching our efforts to implement opendata in both the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda. San Francisco, New York and Chicago have done the hard work blazing a trail, now we have a great process to follow so we don’t have to do the same hard work as they did.

  1. Identify problem
  2. Search for existing solution
  3. Plug and play.

And I think that the more we talk about the processes and struggles to change, the more we all gain.