“Hackathon without code” crowdsources a better website for Oakland
on June 4, 2013
Sonny Le was one of dozens of volunteers who showed up for ReWrite Oakland on Saturday, an effort by the city and open government advocates to build a more easily-accessible website for the City of Oakland. “This is 2013,” Le said. “(And) it’s not user-friendly.”
Le became aware of the problems with the city’s website two years ago. After being robbed at gunpoint while walking his son home from school, three officers arrived and took his statement. “The initial interaction was very good,” he said, but police never responded after 10 days as they had promised. He searched online for some kind of policy that would indicate when he might hear back about his case, but had no success.
Now, in an office across from City Hall, Le and other volunteers systematically plugged information into a new website, called Oakland Answers. The site’s responses range from basic to deeply layered. The answer to “Where is City Hall located” lists the address and public transit information, while a guide to green construction code is nearly 800 words.
Oakland Answers was designed to be as simple and streamlined as possible. The website’s front page features a search bar where residents can type in their questions, and answers are organized by topics like arts and entertainment or transportation. While the City’s main website features more than 100 links on its front page, Oakland Answers has just eight.
Saturday’s event was a part of a nationwide Day of Civic Hacking—a type of event referred to as a hackathon—organized by Open Oakland’s parent organization, Code For America.
The crowd, unlike the turnout at most hackathons, included few tech experts. There were 55 volunteers in the room during the introductions, including retirees, Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council leaders, several Oakland librarians, and a Google employee.
Code for America’s Cyd Harrell called the event a “hackathon without code.” Instead, organizers wanted to explore “how, in plain language, to answer real and challenging questions,” she said. First, volunteers generated questions for the website, writing them on cards and grouping them by topics like housing, public safety, and parking – which is the single largest driver of traffic to the City’s website. Next, volunteers went through the cards, one by one, researching each question and writing briefs to be loaded to the site.
Retirees Judy Cox and Margurite Fuller partnered up with Noah Glick, 26, to create a resource guide for parents of at-risk youth. They assembled a list of mentoring programs, summer jobs, mental health information, and police resources. Next, they tackled better accessibility for City Council agendas. On the city website, “You got to go through so many layers to get to that sucker,” Fuller said.
Other questions volunteers tackled included, “Where can I view a live webcast of City Council Meetings?” “Do I need a permit to be a street performer?” And for victims of crime who, like Sonny Le, want more information about police reporting procedures, that answer is now filed under “How do I find out what happened to a crime I reported?”
Oakland Answers will launch in the next two weeks, organizers said; many of the volunteer-written answers are already available at answers.oaklandnet.com. Though the site was developed in response to the City of Oakland’s byzantine web presence, Open Oakland’s Steve Spiker said they will hand over the new website to the City Administrator’s office to manage.
“People get their information on the internet,” Judy Cox said. “The city should come to people.”
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