OpenOakland brigade encourages collaboration between government and community using technology

Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka gives the keynote at CityCamp at City Hall.

Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka gives the keynote at CityCamp at City Hall.

The sounds of Christmas music, cheering and motorcycles passing on nearby streets as the Oakland Children’s Holiday Parade marched by seeped through the windows of City Hall, but didn’t stop discussions on youth and technology, the Freedom of Information Act and the digital divide in Oakland at the first annual CityCamp, organized by the OpenOakland brigade. 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. Over 120 people, including programmers, city officials, bloggers and community members, attended Saturday’s “unconference,” or interactive forum with topics of discussion that attendees themselves choose.

OpenOakland, only a few months old, is the group responsible for the Open Government Pledge and the OaklandWiki. They are made up of mostly Oakland residents who are interested in working on digital projects to make more information available to the public. At CityCamp, OpenOakland founders Eddie Tejeda and Steve Spiker, among other organizers, put special emphasis on letting go of past gripes between government and residents and focusing on working together. “Oakland can become the next tech hub in the West,” said Code for America founder and director Jennifer Pahlka, who gave the keynote address. “You all came here to collaborate with each other, and that’s the key.”

Attendees chose topics by suggesting them on the EngageOakland.com, created by the city of Oakland, in the days before the event, ideas like “What if we had a hashtag for people to report police misconduct?” or “Making tech training engaging for government employees.” Additional ideas were solicited at the beginning of the event, and were recorded on Post-It notes stuck to the walls of the council chambers, where the introduction to the unconference was held. Votes for the winning topics of discussion were cast by people sticking small red stickers on the topics that most interested them. These included budget and finance, “City Government 101,” libraries and data, transit data and how to improve the city’s website, among many others.

Some sessions, like the session on OaklandWiki, a website about Oakland that anyone can edit created by OpenOakland brigade member Marina Kukso, were run by event organizers; other sessions, like the ones to discuss diversity and the digital divide or youth and technology, did not have a clear facilitator and required attendees to take charge in the discussions and take notes with markers on the flipboards provided in each of the hearing rooms in City Hall.

City employees, some all the way from San Francisco, actively participated in discussions about the Freedom of Information Act and explained why a few things that attendees suggested, such as certain open source programs, wouldn’t work with government systems. Citywide communications director Karen Boyd ran a session called City Government 101 to explain to participants how government processes work and what is needed to make things more efficient.

Adam Stiles, and OpenOakland member and event organizer, said that by the end of the day community members understand better how the city actually functions. “I personally had moments of ‘Oh, that’s who I need to ask to make that happen!’” he said. “This is the beginning of smarter citizenship.”

Stiles said that city employees had generally been receptive to suggestions from community members and OpenOakland members. In a conversation with a city employee, he told her that using Excel files rather than PDF files to provide data on the city’s website is helpful because Excel files are searchable, once downloaded. She said she didn’t realize that would be helpful to people, and that she would start using Excel more. “A small win,” Stiles said, “but this kind of data literacy has the potential to be hugely transformative.”

A session on the OaklandWiki helped people understand how to create a page on the site, so that anyone could edit or update information about Oakland. Making public records requests more readily available; providing volunteer computer tutors at libraries, cafes and community colleges; and organizing a tech-based event in East Oakland rather than downtown Oakland were some topics that were widely discussed.

OpenOakland members made sure to repeat in every session that OpenOakland meets in City Hall every week and that anyone interested is invited to attend meetings to pitch projects or help out with existing efforts.

Robert Chiniquy, a programmer in Oakland who attended the event, said that he now expects more collaboration between city employees and tech-based community members. “These people have come in on the weekend. It’s clear they’re interested in making connections,” he said. “I think many of them will start attending meetings.”

Code for America founder Pahlka said that she hoped people would start working on their ideas after the event on their own. “A lot of this is about people working together. Transparency is not just about holding government accountable,” she said. “It’s about changing the relationship between people and government.”

Correction: While the article previously stated District 4 councilwoman Libby Schaaf ran a session on city government, it was actually citywide communications director Karen Boyd.

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