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Volunteers hack technology to improve Oakland city government

Data visualization of Oakland’s budget (2012-13) created by Open Budget Oakland";

It’s a Tuesday evening in Oakland’s City Hall. A group of people ranging in age from their 20s to 50s are sitting, many in front of their laptops. This is an Open Oakland hacking meeting. Though a lot of jargon is thrown around, some of the people here have no tech backgrounds at all, including Anna Mathai.

“I just wanted to know more about Oakland politics and budget,” she says. “Just about government. And I just find this to be a good forum to, I think, help foster transparency and open government. But also get plugged into what's happening where, and what's going to happen with the next election, and other initiatives.”

Open Oakland is designed to make civic hacking accessible and sustainable. Hacking, that is, in the sense of people working creatively and quickly to improve something. In this case, that means neighborhoods, cities, states, and the country.

Open Oakland Executive Director Steve Spiker says, “So we created this new organization to provide support for people who wanted to hack on city government, make government better, make democracy stronger, and people who wanted to build things on a technology centric-focused to actually improve the city.”

How technology makes government information digestible

Since 2012, volunteers with Open Oakland have created several apps. There’s the Adopt a Drain program where residents can take charge of clearing their local storm drain; Open Beats helps people find their neighborhood crime prevention group; and Open Budget Oakland.

A lot of what they’re doing, Spiker says, is taking large data sets and making them much more accessible.

“Because a data file with, say, a million records,” he says, “no one from the public is going to be able to consume and understand that.”

So, he says, they decipher the raw data and ask, “What are things people really should know? And how do we convey them in a way that is both meaningful and accessible? And in a way that actually looks good as well? That isn’t confusing and clunky.”

Take Open Budget Oakland, one of the groups earlier projects. In 2012 the city released a 300-page budget report. Open Oakland hackers took the data and created a one-page visual graphic to show how it works.

There’s a list of revenue streams – some bigger, some smaller – that feed into things such as the general fund. Streams proportional to their size flow into expense line items. The easy-to-read graphics were key for Helen Hutchison with the League of Women Voters.

“When you used to go and research about the city budget, you could get what were basic reports from the city,” Hutchison says. “There was nothing bad about them, but they weren't particularly accessible to people who didn't understand budgets.”

“The fact that now the basic raw data is available and people who have a lot more time to spend on it can create more reports only adds to that. And therefore for those of us who are not technical or not budget savvy will be able to learn about it,” she says.

How accessible information transforms relationships with government

“A lot of what we do is actually trying to build trust back in government,” says Spiker.

There are some key ways, he says, to create that trust, because “government has to be more open, more transparent, and accessible so people can see what’s happening inside.”

Spiker says it’s not because the city is trying to be secretive, but that “often just bad technology and bad processes limit government from being really transparent very frequently.” 

Still, everyone who pitches in at Open Oakland is a volunteer, including Spiker. The organization has almost no funding, though it does get about $4,000 from Code for America, which pays for the hack nights.

As more volunteers trickle into the hack meeting, each partners up with a group working on a project. Miguel Vargas is searching a database for the tenures of councilmembers for an application he’s developing.

“It’s an app called Councilmatic,” says Vargas, “which is going to help people kind of keep track of new laws coming up, what their council member voted on, and also a place for the community to talk about different laws as they’re being implemented.”

So if you’re interested in a specific issue the app would let you know when it’s going to be discussed at a city council meeting.

Another tool in development is called Open Disclosure. Spiker says it will map campaign finance contributions, “to allow people to understand who is giving money to which campaign, where the money is coming from, where it’s going to, to understand this at a local level for the very first time.”

Open Oakland is part of a larger national network coordinated by Code for America: residents coming together to deal with their cities’ issues using open data and technology. It’s a way to reshape city government as an engaging and accessible entity; arguably, what it’s supposed to be in the first place.

Crosscurrents Oaklandtechnology