On a late weekday night, 14 men, one woman and about a dozen MacBooks shared a large oval table in a small Urban Strategies Council office in downtown Oakland. Everyone had folded bright orange sheets of computer paper into makeshift nametags and thrown singles and fives into a donation bowl for to pay for pizzas, beer and soda. It was the second full meeting of OpenOakland.
Born out of Code for America, a non-profit that serves as a kind of digital liaison between governments and residents, OpenOakland is a group of volunteers interested in using technology to make government more accessible. It is led by Steve Spiker, who describes the group as the “Peace Corps for geeks.” Volunteers meet every week to discuss new ideas and report progress on projects the group is tackling. The meetings are open to anyone who is interested in participating, but is heavy on the coders, developers, bloggers and students.
Last week, OpenOakland launched one of their first projects, the Open Government Pledge. The group asked the 27 people running for Oakland city council and city attorney positions to sign a pledge committing to make Oakland’s government more transparent and collaborative. While the group’s pledge didn’t give a lot of specifics about what OpenOakland is asking candidates to do, when it comes to politics, transparent generally means that residents and government officials have open lines of communication and decision-making is a collaborative effort.
“Open Government will help build the public’s trust and satisfaction in government, will improve government’s delivery of services, and will create new opportunities for innovation,” the pledge states.
Spiker said the pledge is vague for a reason. “We have no intention of being political, and this isn’t supposed to be a threat hanging over the candidates,” Spiker said. “This is supposed to be an encouraging step for them.”
As of November 1, 13 of the 27 candidates, including Len Raphael, Richard Raya, Dan Kalb, Amy Lemley and Don Link—all running for the District 1 city council seat—had signed the pledge.
The group’s main goal is to provide easier ways to access civic information. Within the next week, they will launch an “adopt-a-drain” website and app in partnership with Oakland’s environmental services division. This project was first built in Boston as an “adopt-a-fire-hydrant” program. Now, it will be used to encourage Oakland residents to help clear storm drain inlets to prevent street or home flooding.
Participants will choose a drain to adopt and be tasked with making sure that it stays clear of leaves or other blockage, particularly during a storm. After the website and mobile app are launched, participants will receive notifications of when there’s been a storm so that they can check on their drain. If necessary, they can use the app to ask for clean-up help from the city. “It just automates this very basic process,” Spiker said.
Though the city has had an “adopt-a-spot” program for more than 10 years, which urges residents to adopt parks, pathways, stairways and drains, finding new ways to reach residents was necessary, said Susan Kattchee, Oakland’s environmental services manager. Oakland has over 10,000 storm drain inlets and only 80 people have adopted any so far. “We don’t have enough crews to get to 10,000 spots in the city during a storm,” Kattchee said. “Clearly, we have a long way to go.”
The newest OpenOakland projects will be launched over the next 6 to 12 months, said Spiker. These are all projects that were built for other cities, which OpenOakland is reusing, including a website that would make it easier for Oakland residents to request public records from the government and an Oakland crime tracker (modeled after CrimeInChicago.org made by another open data group). The crime tracker would allow citizens to access the city’s crime data to find out where the most incidents happen, what kinds of offenses are common, and whether certain kinds are increasing or decreasing.
“This is a volunteer organization, so everyone here is really passionate about what we’re doing,” Spiker said. “I’m hoping that these projects will be attractive to the city and will be put to serious use.”
Spiker has also scheduled CityCamp Oakland at City Hall on December 1, which the OpenOakland website calls a “fantastic unconference.” Spiker defined an “unconference” as a short, interactive forum where people can meet in person to discuss topics of their own choosing with government officials. “I haven’t been to one that isn’t awesome,” Spiker said. The CityCamp organizers are accepting ideas for topics via Google moderator. Registration is free and open to anyone on the CityCamp website.