Follow the money: Updated website makes Oakland election data accessible

Open Oakland volunteers working on the OpenDisclosure.io website meet during a weekly Open Oakland meeting at City Hall on  Tuesday.

Open Oakland volunteers working on the OpenDisclosure.io website meet during a weekly Open Oakland meeting at City Hall on Tuesday.

In the center of Open Disclosure’s homepage, in yellow lettering, is the total dollar figure of contributions put towards Oakland’s 2018 elections. As of Wednesday, that figure was  $4,092,957. Below it is a button that reads: “Follow the money.”

Clicking it leads to a list of mayoral candidates—just one of the races and ballot measures site is tracking—and how much they have raised for their campaigns. For example, by Wednesday morning, Mayor Libby Schaaf had collected more than any other Oakland candidate so far: $461,593. Clicking on her or any other candidate’s photo lets the user find out where that money came from and where it is going.

“What we try to do is to make complex data that’s hard to understand approachable for Oaklanders,” said Tom Dooner, a volunteer developer for OpenDisclosure.io, the official name of the website.“The way that I think about our project is that we’re helping Oaklanders understand the role of money in their local politics.”

(For the record: Most of Schaaf’s contributions have come from Californians, and nearly half is from Oaklanders.)

Candidates and committees are required to file campaign statements showing campaign contributions (what they’ve received and from whom) and expenditures (how much they’ve spent and on what) by certain deadlines, according to the California Political Reform Act.

Volunteers with OpenOakland, a nonprofit that works to provide greater community access to technology and supports transparency in government, and the Oakland Public Ethics Commission launched the website prior to the 2014 mayoral election in order to make that data more accessible. The same information is available to the public on the commission’s website, where users can download documents filed by candidates, but have to comb through them one at a time.

The 2014 version of Open Disclosure’s site was “pretty basic,” said Sarah Seiter, who volunteers with the group. It only covered the mayor’s race and, unlike the current version of the site, was formatted to be used on a desktop.

“We actually stripped it down and made it mobile-friendly, first and foremost,” said Elina Rubuliak, a user interface designer volunteering with OpenOakland, during the group’s meeting at City Hall on Tuesday night. Rubuliak said that the changes came after creators realized that most people were attempting to use the website on their cell phones. Many people interested in the information Open Disclosure was providing, she said, were lower-income residents who don’t have home computers or Internet access.

The project’s second version, which was released ahead of the 2016 election, added other races and ballot measures, like one of the most contentious measures that year: one cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda. That version of the website was able to show voters where support and opposition for the tax were coming from, including contributors such as the American Beverage Association, which opposed the tax, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was for it. (Bloomberg has a long history of supporting soda taxes, according to Forbes, donating more than $18 million in a single year to support ballot propositions in favor of a soda tax in both San Francisco and Oakland.)

“It’s really evolved quite a bit,” Dooner said of the site last week. When OpenOakland volunteers collect the data, which campaign officials filed with the city using California Form 460, it looks like nonsense, he said, separated out into different spreadsheets and tabs. OpenOakland volunteers make the data easier to read by making color-coded graphs—contributions are green, expenditures are red—and pulling out information that voters want most to know, including funding totals.

With each update, he said, they try to include information requested by users.

“They want to know mostly topline figures, what is the scale of influence in different areas, and the total amount of money for each candidate and measure,” Dooner said. “They want to know where the money is coming from that effects their local politics.”

And the data, of course, is new too, Seiter said. The most recent filings were made just last week, so information on the site should be changing “pretty dramatically in real time,” she said.

In addition to the mayor’s race, the site is also tracking the campaigns for city council and school board seats in Districts 2, 4 and 6 and the city auditor position, and several ballot measures.

These include:

  • (Measure AA) the Oakland Children’s Initiative, a parcel tax which would provide additional funding to expand access to early childhood education and improve career readiness for high school students
  • (Measure V) the Cannabis Business Tax, which would allow cannabis businesses to pay taxes quarterly and allow for deductions for raw materials
  • (Measure W) the Vacant Property Parcel Tax, which would tax parcels used less than 50 days per year as a way to address illegal dumping and fund homeless services
  • (Measure X) the Tiered Real Property Transfer Tax, which would lower real estate transfer tax rates for low and moderate income homebuyers
  • (Measure Y) Just Cause Eviction amendments, which would allow the city council to limit landlords’ rights to evict and remove an exemption for owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes
  • and Measure Z,  which would establish workplace protections and raise the minimum wage for hotel employees.

For each measure, the website summarizes the contributions in support or against it. For the Oakland’s Children’s Initiative, for example, more than $1.4 million had been contributed to support the initiative and $44,625 had been contributed to opposing it, as of Wednesday morning.

About 250 people have used Open Disclosure since the newest version’s launch on September 25, Dooner said last week. On average, he said, each person has returned to the site twice, spending four minutes and 30 seconds on the site each time.

Seiter said that the site isn’t meant to be a “get out the vote” tool, but is meant to keep people informed.

“Oaklanders want to know who represents them. Oaklanders want to believe that the people representing them are doing so in good faith,” Dooner said. “I personally want to know that my leader is acting in my best interest and my community’s best interest.”

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