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Steve Spiker checks his computer on a break at the Civic Hack Night held on September 30, 2014.

Oakland techie works to “open” local government data

on November 3, 2014

It’s Tuesday evening at City Hall, and in a conference room scattered people chat animatedly while they start setting up their computers on one of six tables. A guy in his 40s wearing jeans, sneakers and a white beret with green stripes rushes into the room. He is carrying a case of soda and a package of plastic plates in one hand and a box of candies in the other. “Sorry I’m late, guys! Let’s get started,” he says in a very thick Australian accent. This is Steve “Spike” Spiker, the executive director and founder of OpenOakland, and he will run this Civic Hack Night as he has done for the past two years.

OpenOakland, which Spiker co-founded, tries to help Oaklanders be more engaged with each other and their local government. The group attempts to do so by creating digital tools to make the government more “open,” by which Spiker means that the government and staff are accessible—easy to connect with, easy to ask questions of—and that web services are simple to find and use. “It’s vital for trust, for effectiveness and for innovation,” Spiker said.

One of their latest projects, OpenDisclosure, which launched in early September, is helping shed light on the flow of money for Oakland’s mayoral election. The website, built in partnership with the city’s Public Ethics Commission, features campaign finance data submitted by campaigns or by individual donors for all Oakland mayoral candidates. Through tables, maps and charts, Oaklanders can learn which candidate has the highest percentage of contributions from Oakland donors, the percentage of personal funds they used on their campaigns, or who raised the most money in each ZIP code.

For example, a user trying the app on October 29 would have learned that District 4 councilmember Libby Schaaf raised $421,267 in her race for mayor of Oakland, of which only 0.26 percent came from her personal funds, while executive Saied Karamooz spent $401,464 raised from his personal funds on his campaign for mayor. In other words, Karamooz financed his entire campaign, and didn’t receive any contributions from donors in Oakland.

Spiker said that for this project they gathered thousands of records that had very confusing details and hard-to-understand formats, in order to make the information clear for the average person. “Voters in this election have got access to who is funding who for the very first time in Oakland,” Spiker said. “People will start to understand where the influence lies, and where the allegiances lie with their mayoral candidates.”

The Civic Hack Nights, which happen every Tuesday, are another way that OpenOakland tries to improve the lives of Oaklanders. At these meetings, people gather to solve civic problems using technology and data.

At this late September meeting, pizzas are on a table at the back of a City Hall room, so as the attendees form a line to grab a slice, they either start chatting with someone they met at a previous Civic Hack Night, or introduce themselves if they are new to the group. After the dinner break, the 25 attendees sit at the tables, which are gathered into a U-shape, and Spiker leads the meeting. He speaks quickly, without pauses and in his impossible-to-disguise Australian accent. He tells his listeners that transparency means a great deal to the Oakland community and that they need to seek transparency on every single project they create.

By “transparent,” Spiker means that the government processes are not done in secret and that the information is open and easily accessible. “It means the work of the public is done in public,” Spiker said.

Then, five of the attendees share the projects they are working on and explain what kind of help they will need that night and in the following weeks. Among the projects they are working on: “Open Budget: Oakland,” which will explore how the city’s spending and budget process is working and where the money is going; Oakland Open-Data Portal, a catalog that will contain housing, education, demographics, health, transportation and other important information for Oakland’s community; and OpenDisclosure. The attendees choose which project they want to collaborate on, and they start working in groups of four or five. You don’t need to be a programmer to collaborate with a group—in fact, most of the Civic Hack Night attendees don’t know how to code.

As the groups get to work, Spiker types on his computer, checks his phone from time to time and sips his Coke. He will later walk along the groups to see how they are doing, but right now he seems to be absorbed by his computer.

Spiker’s interest in how communities work and how he could help started early in his life. He was born and raised in Alice Springs, Australia, a small town that is surrounded by aboriginal settlements. (Spiker identifies as Australian-American with Dutch, French, English and Italian roots.) As a teenager, he had friends within the aboriginal community who would often tell him about drug- and alcohol-related issues in their own communities. “People weren’t treated fairly and the systems were in place for perpetuating a lot of those problems,” Spiker said. “I guess that was a starting point of why I was a little bit obsessed with injustice.”

His studies in surveying and mapping at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia, and his early work as a land surveyor and planner connected him with data. But he wasn’t comfortable with it at first, and didn’t quite know how to use it to fight social injustice. “For a long time I definitely did not love it,” Spiker said.

But he began to feel more interested in using data after working as a spatial analyst and epidemiologist at the State Department of Health in Western Australia.

In terms of epidemiology, “spatial” means mapping diseases, knowing where the clusters of certain diseases are, how patterns of viruses are spread, and where the communities with increased medical needs are located. In his work at the Department of Health, he particularly analyzed the health issues of the Somali population that immigrated to Australia. He started seeing that data could tell a story and could tell when a situation required action. “It can highlight real issues and therefore force people to act,” Spiker said.

When asked how a guy from Australia ended up living in Moraga and working in (and for) Oakland, Spiker’s answer is easy: love. He moved to California eight years ago after meeting his American wife, Heather, through mutual friends. He started working as a researcher for the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland—where they do detailed mapping and data crunching to help explain social issues and build web tools to help people understand those complicated issues—and worked his way up to serving as its director of research and technology.

In 2011, Spiker served as a program mentor for Code for America, an organization that builds open source technology and organizes networks of people to make government services more simple and effective. Still, Spiker felt he could help Oakland in a different way. “We realized there were amazingly talented people in Oakland and real needs in City Hall around technology, engagement and data access,” Spiker said.

Later in 2012, Spiker partnered with Eddie Tejeda, a Code for America fellow he had mentored, and together they founded OpenOakland. “We thought we’d build something that leveraged all the wonderful capacity of our community to apply new ideas and tools to current issues,” Spiker said. “We could take a partnering, supporting approach to helping government become more open and innovative instead of just complaining from the outside like most of us used to do.”

Spiker and Tejeda connected with the Code for America Brigade, a program that holds Civic Hack Nights and events, advocates for open data and develops apps to build a strong civil engagement with their communities. They relied on this program for support and advice, and then they spread the word that anyone interested in open government should join in their new group. “We met in conference rooms over beer and pizza, worked on a plan of attack and started hacking—building new apps for Oakland,” Spiker said.

Some of OpenOakland’s first projects took a long time to succeed due to problems getting the data they needed, but others, like the Oakland Wiki, took off. Oakland’s Wiki works like Wikipedia does—it’s a community-built website about Oakland that anyone can edit. The site was launched in July, 2012, and contributors built all the content. Oaklanders often reference the site to look for information about landmarks, food and restaurants, community resources and events.

For Spiker, one of the most important things when managing data, whether it’s on his job at the council or at OpenOakland, is managing the data strategically. He says that a lot of talented government employees just compile information for reports and compliance processes. “Those people aren’t tasked with any power to start thinking about what that data means, what that data is telling them. Are there stories in there? Are there issues they could reveal?” Spiker said.

A good example of data used efficiently was OpenOakland’s project Oakland Answers, a “very human focused website,” Spiker said, that provides information written by Oaklanders, for Oaklanders. It was a crowdsourced project that was built as a collaboration between community members and government staffers and it won the Champions of Change award given by the White House in 2013. “It was a great example of how cities and communities can actually work together to do something positive, instead of bickering and complaining and fighting,” Spiker said.

Ronald Pineda, an OpenOakland volunteer, describes Spiker as a devoted leader. “He is very passionate about the issues that he really cares about, but also very tenacious. He is someone who wants to find, let’s say, an economic disparity that needs to be addressed and he digs upon that,” Pineda said. “He would actually work with different groups to address that issue.”

Tejeda, OpenOakland’s co-founder, agrees with Pineda. “He is a very passionate guy; he gets very interested in topics and explores them exceptionally,” he said.

Spiker leads the Civic Hack Night, but when he speaks he tries to make his points quickly and draw attention to the attendees, rather than himself. “His leadership style is simply unique—he doesn’t look for the spotlight. Rather, what he does—and really well—is he brings all these different people together to form the solutions collectively,” Pineda said. “And it’s a smart tactic.”

In his free time, Spiker enjoys spending quality time with his two daughters: Grace, who is 2, and Lucy, who is 9 months old. He also runs a landscape photography business as a sideline. His passion for photography started at an early age thanks to his father, who is also a photographer. “He would always stop the car every 10 miles when we were traveling and take photos and annoy the heck out of the kids,” Spiker said with a grin on his face.

It’s always easy to spot Spiker in a crowd because of his headgear. Spiker has a hat collection he started in the mid 2000’s that has become his trademark. He owns twelve hats, plus six Kangol berets he usually wears at the hack events and to work. While he jokes that wearing hats likely accelerated his baldness, he really doesn’t think he started using them because he was beginning to go bald. “I always liked them,” Spiker said.

Juggling between two steady jobs and volunteering for OpenOakland has definitely been a challenge for Spiker, but he said that he still wants to do it because he loves Oakland. “I guess when you are passionate about something, you find the time to make it work,” Spiker said.

Now the Hack Night is almost over, and the pizza boxes at the end of the room are empty. Some of the attendees have already left the meeting after finishing their assigned tasks. Others have realized their project will take more time to complete, and they talk with their teammates about carrying on the work the following week. Spiker and the remaining volunteers start stacking chairs and doing the final clean-up.

“Goodnight Spike,” one of the hackers says on his way out. “See you next Tuesday.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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