CityCamp Oakland bridges the divide between tech and local government

Participants at CityCamp Oakland packed the City Council chambers for an all-day "unconference" connecting technology and local government.

Participants at CityCamp Oakland packed the City Council chambers for an all-day "unconference" connecting technology and local government.

An “unconference” took over Oakland City Hall this past weekend, featuring more than a dozen workshops ranging from the city budget to neighborhood crime issues to the digital divide and open data. Over a hundred technology professionals, city staff, local citizens and business leaders came together to discuss the often-rocky relationship between technology and local government.

The second annual CityCamp Oakland comes out of a surging tech community in Oakland and a city government looking to become a leader in civic technology. The conference was organized by OpenOakland, a civic hacking group born out of Code for America, the national non-profit that pairs young programmers with local governments.

Event organizers Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejeda estimated that there was a bigger turnout than the inaugural event last year. They were also thrilled to see an increase in interest from Oakland city staff willing to give up their Saturday to learn about technology solutions in government.

“We’re at a cusp where just a few years ago these were fringe ideas, but now it is seen as a real need. It is considered important,” said Tejeda, a former Code for America fellow, who co-founded OpenOakland.

CityCamp “tends to raise questions more than answer them,” said co-organizer Steve Spiker. But he added that the real value was providing “a safe constructive space for people inside the city, inside the community, inside the technology space to get together and talk about ways to collaborate more effectively, and have the city be more transparent and engaged.”

The range of projects discussed Saturday was wide, but one question was answered over and over again throughout the day: Should Oakland make city data more accessible online? And the response was a resounding “yes.”

Participants had 30 seconds to pitch ideas for sessions that they were interested in and then voted by placing dots on sticky notes plastered to the wall.  Many session ideas were combined and the winning-sticky notes became the focus of the day’s workshops. Participants then spent the day bouncing between breakout sessions, group discussions and speakers. The format was more conversational than a typical conference, hence its title as an “unconference.”

Kevin Dalley, a long-time Oakland resident working on open source projects, was “interested in how technology can help reduce crime,” and found himself talking with Jesper Jurcenoks, founder of a non-profit that sets up cameras in neighborhoods as a crime prevention tool. Last year, Adam Stiles made connections with key city staff that allowed him access to essential data and helped launch Open Budget Oakland, which aims to increase understanding of the city budget.

Mayor Jean Quan made a brief appearance, as did city councilmember Lynette McElhaney and councilmember Libby Schaaf, herself eyeing a run at the mayor’s office. Schaaf spearheaded legislation for the city to adopt an open data policy, which city council passed unanimously in October.

“I think redefining the relationship between citizen and government is very exciting. It’s what we need to revitalize democracy,” Schaaf said, adding she was “heartened by citizens taking their day off and saying we want to help city services.”

With the city already stretched to provide essential services, Gov 2.0 as it is often called, seemed to offer the potential for crowdsourcing some basic government functions, rather than rely on city staff.

Oakland currently doesn’t have a Chief Information Officer, a position the city has left unfilled for over a year. Many participants spoke to this issue throughout the day as one problem for the city in implementing an overall technology strategy.

Ahsan Baig, however, the current interim CIO, said he saw the city transforming into a technology leader. “I can assure you that within two years you will see something that is very unique and a lot of people will be looking at Oakland for the innovation.” For Baig, CityCamp was “all about using technology to help city staff,” although he admitted he was “surprised to see so many city staff outside of IT.”

LaTonda Simmons, the City Clerk of Oakland, was one of those staffers looking for ideas.  At a session on rewriting the Sunshine Ordinance, a localized version of the Brown Act and Public Records Act that aims to provide greater transparency and access to local government, she discussed some of the issues facing her department.

“I have been here eleven years and there wasn’t a single manual,” she said, referring to how procedures were passed along and updated. She worried about what would happen to essential procedures if she left, and highlighted the city’s struggles to maintain full staffing. “I started with 15 people and I’m down to 9.”

Many technology advocates think this is exactly where Gov 2.0 can help cities—by automating services online, city staff are free to focus on more essential work.  Oakland’s city contract database is not accessible, for example, because it is all on paper.  Digitizing the database not only makes the information accessible but it frees up the city staffer who maintains the paper database.

One of the key advocates in Oakland of this approach is Nicole Neditch, formerly the Online Engagement Manager with the city administrator’s office, and now the Fellowship Director with Code for America.

“It’s hard to make quick change in government, hard to take a risk in government. Code for America allows for that to happen because they are taking the risk,” Neditch said. This year Code for America fellows set up an online tool for making public records requests more accessible and easier to use. This is something the city would never have had the capacity to do on its own, she said, adding City Camp is a way for city staff and citizens to engage with common goals and ideas.

“As citizens we forget that people in government are citizens too,” she said.

One of the most heated discussions of the day was in a session on the digital divide, diversity and white privilege in tech. Some participants expressed their frustration at the lack of people of color involved in these discussions and highlighted the need for more diversity.

“Oakland is so close to Silicon Valley and yet it has schools that are struggling to produce kids that are educated and qualified for the STEM jobs that exist in the region,” event co-organizer Steve Spiker said.  “And at the same time it has an amazing talent pool of technologists, digital experts across the city. So it has enormous potential to do things in this space collaboratively but not a lot of leadership that is taking advantage of the skills and interest that people have.”

Whether concrete projects come out of this year’s CityCamp Oakland will remain to be seen. However, OpenOakland projects in recent years have included an open data portal, Oakland Wiki, and a tool to find vacant and abandoned properties.

“The technology is not the end goal. It’s just the vehicle for getting the conversation started,” said co-organizer Eddie Tejeda. “Ultimately it’s about building a better government.”

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