To get an idea of how badly Oakland needs to upgrade its digital infrastructure, you just need to read this one line from Tuesday’s city council staff report:
“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 Oakland’s civic tech stack, and this one is long overdue. Our ancient legislation software was the reason Miguel Vargas and his crew struggled so hard to complete the build-out of our Councilmatic system, however with this upgrade, we’ll now use 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 that has been tailored for this version by folks in Philadelphia and Chicago.
We’ve been waiting for over two years, so it’s exciting that this finally gets approved by the Finance Committee. 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 Oakland’s use of technology and our lawmaking. Today, we saw a pivotal moment for our city.
It turns out that there is something in addition to the basic software the vendor, Granicus, can offer – an application programming interface – 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 no one to date (New York City is just now struggling to get this sorted out and seems to be on the right track).
Before approving the purchase, Councilmember Libby Schaaf asked the committee to require that Granicus provide an API as part of the contract requirements. No one 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 Oakland gets 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.
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 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 going be awesome as it becomes the norm – less bundling of contracted software with built in, accessible open data.