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.

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 Crimereports.com 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.

Code for America in Oaktown?

Today the City of Oakland met with Code for America to learn more about the fellowship and how it could benefit our town. We had representatives from the Mayor’s office, the new deputy Administrator, city council and ourselves. There was real excitement from the city folks about this partnership, and a very sure commitment from leadership that the city was serious about this possibility and clearly understood the benefits we stand to reap from being part of Code for America in 2013. This was for the first time a group of senior leaders who were willing to stick out their necks and allow for innovation in city hall. There was a clear understanding of many impediments our city faces to improving service delivery, being a more open and engaged city, removing barriers and blockages to effective service delivery and to allowing new technology to be a spur for process changes.

I’m personally very excited about this effort. Our city has faced numerous real challenges in the past year and there seemed to be no coordinated leadership to effectively use technology to improve our city and no chance city hall would get it together to present a cohesive, thought out application for CfA. But they’re on it. Giddy would be appropriate. I went in hoping it wouldn’t be CfA needing to sell itself to the city and was very happy to see the city staff and leaders being gung-ho to start this relationship and to become part of this dynamic, powerful network that CfA represents.

The idea pitched by the city resonates with my experience working in and with the city.  But I’m not going to steal anyone’s thunder by publishing what it was- that honor needs to remain with the people who actually formed the idea (and dealt with my constant stream of encouragement and nagging to become a CfA city). Combined with a very serious plan to move an OpenData policy through city council, this represents some really positive changes for our town. I’ve been open about poor decisions and bad tech in the past but I’m going to be even more vocal about good decisions and people trying to innovate and take risks rather than do the same ol thing the same ol way that never worked in the first place.

Let’s go Oakland! (Yes I just watched Moneyball and nearly shed a tear hearing that chant as Beane walked back into the stadium on the 20th game of the streak.)

An Open Letter to Oakland: Innovate or stagnate.

Today in SF one of my favorite organizations had a big launch event with Mayor Ed Lee. I’m incredibly proud to have been a program mentor for Code for America in it’s inaugural year and have gained so much from my involvement with and support of CfA this past year. I swear that at every single tech, geospatial, gov and urbanist event I’ve attended in 2011 I’ve run into CfA fellows and have had great conversations and felt a huge kinship with the amazing people who have volunteered their year in service of our country.

Today the CfA CEO Jen Pahlka and the Mayor of SF announced the new accelerator startup that that will partner with cities to help streamline city processes and apply the innovation and energy of the startup tech world to the challenges of city government in SF and other cities. Also announced was the move of Jay Nath from the SF Tech Dept to the Mayor’s new Chief Innovation Officer position, congrats Jay and very impressive decision by a proactive Mayor Lee!

What does this usual tech innovation and government transformation mean to us in the East Bay? Firstly we need our city leaders and officials to recognize and support the great wealth of talent we have in the technology sector in Oakland. San Francisco is seen as the hub of tech innovation, but the reality is that Oakland has this facet also- Pandora is my personal fav of the Oakland tech startups to make it, and is a great employer in our city. Given the turnout at the first Code for Oakland event we helped run last year and the recent OpenData Day Hackathon we ran, it’s very clear to me how many interested, talented, creative technology developers we have in our town, and the reality that too many of our leaders do not appreciate is that these professionals want to support, improve, grow and celebrate our city.

Secondly we need to encourage a culture of innovation and creativity in city government, especially in the realm of technology and community engagement. I’ve had a chance to work with many city staff across different departments and can draw out a long list of problems, failures and flaws that other cities in the CfA program have also identified as weak points and have now developed open source solutions to fix these weaknesses. Currently the city is leaderless in this space and our county is not far ahead of the city. There is no support of the local tech community from city hall, no spirit of entrepreneurship emanating from the city hall, no  effort to be a platform for civic innovation and very little real engagement with this hugely talented pool of local software engineers who have a habit of finding incredible solutions to city tech issues.

This frustrates the crap outta me. As a city we have all the ducks lined up, all we need is a city structure that supports and leverages the opportunities and tools already built. Our government can and should be a platform for civic innovation and new tech startups. But what needs to happen first is that the city shows some intentional leadership on this. Like San Francisco we should create a role for an Innovation Director for the city, either in the Tech Dept or in the Mayor’s office. We should also consider the need to have the ITD director as a cabinet level position- technology is not just a bunch of back room nerds doing desktop support and the person responsible for all the city tech infrastructure should not be merely a director level with no strategic input at the Mayor’s table. This person would be empowered to motivate and mobilize our great tech community to help build new solutions for our city and to help adapt many of the tools built through CfA and in the Civic Commons to collaboratively improve our city technology solutions. Many of our tech problems have been solved in other cities and all we need to to is pick from existing open sourced applications and implement them in our town.

From my work here are a few quick areas that I’ve seen solutions for either out of CfA or in the Civic Commons:

  • Contracting processes: currently a small business contract with the city for perhaps a few thousand dollars requires the business to complete approximately 12 different documents, from word docs to locked PDFs, so they must print them all and fill them out by hand, and then submit copies. I can only imagine the city process for recording and managing these various forms when they are received. Take a look at the SmartPDF work in SF for a powerful solution, or just make the effort to combine all these forms into a single, fill-able PDF at the very least, and one day perhaps implement web based forms?
  • Adopt an Open311 system for calls for service. This platform, developed in SF and DC is an open source 311 system that has open connectors and a new public dashboard feature developed by CFA. Very powerful and no proprietary software required.
  • Work with the county to build a unified property addressing system.
  • Implement Classtalk.org across the OUSD and help our teachers keep in touch with their students via SMS – perfect for a community with low internet access at home!
  • Implement ChangeByUs, a great new tool for community engagement and collaboration.
  • Implement an OpenData policy and work with our tech community to build an OpenData portal for our city. Free up valuable city data to encourage innovation, engagement and new startups! We’re doing this anyway, but it should be supported by our city!

One glimmer of hope is the recent decision of the city Public Works agency to adopt a tool called SeeClickFix. This is the first tech move that indicates a move to more open, innovative software selection for Oakland and I’m excited about this move. We’ve already had access to this app to a degree but this new step means the city will be integrating this web based citizen reporting tool with it’s newish CityWorks platform. Finally a set of tools that have open interfaces and allow the city to connect to other systems as they are implemented. This is great, a good, forward thinking decision and we need much more of it! So congratulations for this. Seriously.

I think our city has enormous potential to become a leader in this field, to be seen as a true innovator and a city of real collaborative efforts to solve our common problems. But our leaders need to step up and be real leaders in order to see this occur. Otherwise it will happen slowly and stubbornly on it’s own, and the city will not be recognized through this but will instead grow it’s reputation as an immovable, clunky, closed bureaucracy that did nothing to leverage the immense talent and interest of it’s residents.

I love my town and I’m excited to work for an organization who supports civic technology innovation. If our city steps up we’ll support their efforts aggressively. Our town needs some positive PR, and this one is all ready to go!
Read more:

the Accelerator event

To hear about the accelerator as it ramps up

New Year’s Focus

Not the car, the chaos that is my interest, passion and work in life. For a couple of years I’ve struggled to come up with a sensible, manageable approach to being more open (writing) about the diverse stuff that excites and motivates (yep and frustrates) me without creating a confused picture for a certain audience. So screw it, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to segment my thoughts on landscape photography, consumer tech, government tech, open government, democracy, opendata, geospatial, community engagement, social science research, community development, statistics, social justice movements and community development, public service, leadership, hip-hop and faith. No more hours trying to think of cool domain names for each segment of my life, this is me. Like you I’m something of a mess, but I have a lot of fun being this way.

This lil ol blog will wander, diverge, sidetrack and hopefully at times focus.

And there may be some additional lack of focus when my first child arrives soon, but I promise to keep baby pics out of here, did I mention how much I can’t stand Anne Geddes?