Author: Steve Spiker

Oakland vendor API requirement a big step for municipal open government

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

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.

OpenOakland 1.5: A year and a half in review

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

As we close out the year, I wanted to reflect on a few things to put our work in perspective and also to lay out the vision for where we want to go in the new year. 2013 was a great year for civic innovation in Oakland. It was a great year for the growing movement to open up government and to build towards a future where our local government is truly by the people, for the people and of the people in the 21st century. But we still have much to do and much to learn. I’m excited about both of those realities.

OpenOakland was created to fulfill two main goals – to provide a backbone level of support for civic innovation in Oakland, and to support our local government in being more open, more agile and more engaged. Both Eddie Tejeda and I believe that the approach taken by Code for America is perhaps the strongest, smartest way to achieve truly open government in the USA, and we’re proud to be part of a national movement to transform how government works and is how we as citizens and residents interact with government.

We believe that leadership is best done through supporting others to change, by providing a vision of what could be and by helping others move along that path. OpenOakland was our idea to make that vision a reality and so far hundreds of people across Oakland have been inspired to be part of that journey too – we all want our government to be great- we want to have a positive, trusting relationship with our city hall and the people working inside. It seems that our approach is yielding fruit in a very small period of time.

We are often perceived as simply technologists who are interested in the technical solution. While many of our members are technically gifted, we are not about the technology – the advantage that technologists offer however is the ability to know what is possible. Take this year’s acclaimed app built by Adam Stiles and Shawn McDougal with support from the city’s Budget Advisory Committee and others: OpenBudgetOakland.org.

This app demonstrates so much of what we’re building.

Conceived at a hackathon, we offered to help incubate and support the completion of this game changing app. It required the city to release the raw budget in a raw data format for the first time ever – a serious change in attitude from a city hall frequently seen as closed and uncooperative. In releasing this data, the city enabled the development of an incredibly powerful application that would never have been conceived of nor built in city hall. Our team has learned a lot through the launch of this app and has been largely responsible for the increased focus on the city’s budgeting process and the push for increased transparency and engagement in future budget preparation. We’ve helped to change city policy, empower people to ask informed questions and enriched the discussion with trustworthy information.

And we’ve helped open the budget data for the first time.

This is what we’re about – technology to change behaviors and to create new possibilities.

In June we participated in a national event called the National Day of Civic Hacking, co-sponsored by the White House. While other cities were hacking on new apps, we knew there was an opportunity to do something different in Oakland. An app and an idea struck us as being perfectly suited to Oakland- something called Honolulu Answers. It was built by a Code for America team and it consisted of an app and an approach. This app was, like all of our work, open source. That means anyone in the world can take the raw code and reuse it however they like. Likewise, the team shared their method to build it.

In Oakland, we held an event called ReWrite Oakland – while a geeky play on words, we wanted to build this new web app for our city and we invited the city to participate in building it. Seventy people joined us at the HUB Oakland to create a new resource for all of our city: Answers.Oaklandnet.com was the result.

What we did was more than just build a new web app in collaboration with the city – we showed that how the city acquires and considers technology can be different, better, smarter. An open source app and a ton of residents time created a website far more accessible to regular people than the city’s current site. We will be holding ReWrite evenings across the city in 2014, giving more Oaklanders the chance to help build something together.

As this article gets published, we’ll also be launching a new app built with a city project in mind. AdoptaDrainOakland.com was a suggestion form the city’s environmental services team – they saw the success of the Adopta apps used in other cities and asked us to help bring that app to Oakland. The result is another open source website that helps Oaklanders contribute in a small but meaningful way to their city. If we can help to clear out blocked drains when it floods, our public works crews can stay focused on fixing all those potholes we love to hate.

We’ve also been hard at work on building an app that breaks down the old barriers between city council and the public- the dreaded Council agenda PDF nightmare. Led by Miguel Vargas, this app allows regular people to easily find information about discussions and topics hitting council and other meetings in the city. It will allow people for the first time to stay on top of matters that relate to them, without the painful process of digging through dozens of lengthy PDF documents. Our hope is that this makes our council more open and with solid outreach on our part, changes the way people choose to be passive consumers or engaged citizens.

With our community we’ve also built some simple apps, based on other great open source projects in other cities, that help residents find services and connect to their local networks:
EarlyOakland.com helps parents find free early childhood education and care. OaklandBeats.com lets easily people find their local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council.

We also continue to provide technical support for the amazing OaklandWiki.org project – your very own wiki for the town! One of our first projects, this has spun off into a dynamic community and is a great resource to share what you know about your city.

Late this year we also participated in the first ever crowdsourced legislation in the City of Oakland. Lauded by the Sunlight Foundation as a promising practice for other cities to follow, we joined dozens of people from across the city and the country to help form the strongest possible new language for the city’s open data resolution, which passed the city council with no dissension. This new resolution requires our city to develop a comprehensive plan to build out the open data efforts across all departments.

Providing a strong sustaining force to the efforts underway already (which we successfully pushed for in 2012 also), this will set our city on a strong path for the future where researchers, developers, analysts and even city staff have simple, legal access to the valuable data the city produces already. We see this as an important factor in changing the status quo regarding staff and electeds attitudes towards transparency- when the expectations for city information becomes “open by default”, our leaders will be operating on a very different platform than in the past.

As with our Open Government Pledge in 2012, we will once again be taking up the challenge to convince our next round of city leaders to support the concept of open government. We aim to hold a mayoral candidates forum focused on issues of technology, transparency, engagement and procurement.

Clearly what we’re doing is geeky and optimistic. We think this work matters to the entire city, and we’ll be making a lot of effort to connect with organizations and people across this great city in 2014. While our focus has been on building relationships with and changing how things are done inside city hall, we almost forgot that “by the people” is bigger than just those who take the time to join us in city hall for our hack nights and other events.

When we formed, we established values of engagement with our city and diversity in our membership and leaders. 2014 presents us with the chance to engage more widely and to share this vision with those who want to participate.  While the technology sector is often an exclusive space, we will be putting in hard work to create a truly inclusive movement in Oakland.

Although not the work of OpenOakland itself, it would be remiss to not mention the powerful new public records system that our Code for America fellowship team built. Available now at records.oaklandnet.com, this system provides both a streamlined way for the city to manage and respond to public records requests, it also provides the public with an incredible view into what is being requested. Again this demonstrates how we think – interfaces to government should be designed for the users, should be beautiful and easy to use, should serve the business needs of city staff and should provide an open view for the public.

What has this cost? The simple answer is that all this has been accomplished by an organization with no budget (besides the pizza fund Code for America provides – and that is important) and no staff. Our work has been produced by people with a desire to see our city become stronger, smarter and more open. As leaders of this group, we’ve tried to support as many people as possible in doing things that brings innovation to city hall and creates more beautiful, accessible ways for people to interact and engage with our government. Our events have relied on generous sponsors, but other than their support, OpenOakland to date represents what is possible when people who love their city get together, collaborate and innovate for the good of all.

We need to trust in government again, we need to respect public service, we need a government that is open and serves all people equitably and justly. We also need our government to be able to innovate, to take measured risks and to provide better ways for residents to interact with officials and elected members. This is what we’re about.

We’re excited about what 2014 has in store, and we welcome your feedback on our efforts as well as your partnership to make this vision a reality.