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.

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.