Cracking Oakland's Code 

Can a group of hackers figure out new answers to the city's old problems?

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And in an effort to spur more civic hacking efforts beyond the Code for America work, Neditch is working on creating an open data portal for the City of Oakland — originally proposed by Councilwoman Schaaf in April — to house more than thirty datasets held by the city. "For now it's going to be sort of the low-hanging fruit of what's already available online in some form," said Neditch. The portal, however, will be a single repository for all the information, constantly updated and able to be synced or downloaded for easy access.

Similarly, the city recently debuted Engage Oakland, a site meant to serve as a community board for citizens to pose questions to city officials, or comment on other people's ideas to improve the city. In the future, Neditch envisions city staff taking an active role in responding to and participating in the forums on the site. In the most utopian sense, Engage Oakland would blur the divide between City Hall and citizens so that all community members can be heard — not just those who show up to city council meetings.

While all these measures have just been rolled out in the last year, what's clear is that within City Hall, this movement is being viewed as a sea change in how government operates. "I think it's a culture shift among city employees that no longer see [open government] as threatening, and are actually excited and hungry for it," said Schaaf.

What's less clear to see in the haze of fancy interactive websites and apps, however, is the actual impact they will have. The language of Code for America, the city, and the hackers is often unimaginably grand in scale, with all roads inevitably ending at "a truer democracy." Multiple people I spoke to invoked the desire to revert back to the early days of collaborative government, with the Internet eventually shepherding in a bygone era of town hall-like participation. The goals are commendable, to be sure, but even the most useful website isn't really that useful at all if no one uses it.

"It's something I struggle with every day," said Neditch. "There is this jump to technology as the solution to increasing engagement, but it's definitely not the only step we have to take."

Spiker echoed a similar sentiment. "A lot of the things we've seen being done with open data so far are technology vanity projects," he said. "But there have been a number of things that really have been transformative, I think.

"Right now if you want to start a business in San Francisco, you can find vacant properties, search by neighborhood, find characteristics of nearby businesses, and check out crime and foreclosures in the area," he continued. "You'd get a very comprehensive picture of all the things you'd need to know to locate and invest in the city. In Oakland, however, none of those things exist, except for being able to look at Crimespotting."

And as far as getting people to plug in, Code for America is beginning to emphasize that aspect more as well. In the next year, it'll be pushing cities to do what's essentially basic marketing around the sites. After all, people are more likely to use sites if they know they exist.

But in Oakland, the challenges remain great. The digital divide continues to be a persistent problem. Open Oakland, for example, is mostly made up of young white males, representative of the mostly young white tech sector that it's largely drawing from.

But the problem, said Dennis Rojas, director of East Bay Job Developers and a board member for the Latino Connection PAC, is only partially the skills gap; it's also about how the conversation is being framed. "I think people hear things framed in terms of being about tech and think, this is something that doesn't concern you. But this is something that very much concerns you. It's not about hackers and computers and technology; it's about your community, your issues, and keeping your neighborhoods clean and safe."

While the City Camp event, which Rojas attended, was incredibly successful at bringing together disparate communities, he emphasized that those types of events can't just be happening downtown. "I'd like to see something like this happen in East Oakland. One of the challenges with communities of color is that they're very cynical of government, and it's because they're not part of the conversation." Holding an event like City Camp downtown — far away from many of the communities excluded from the conversation, he said — just pushes them farther away.

And it's not lost on many hackers that, despite the city's many efforts toward open government, Oakland has had some issues with transparency. City Administrator Deanna Santana, who has been very supportive of Oakland's open government initiative, has also come under fire for her efforts to redact portions of a report that strongly criticized OPD in light of its heavy-handed response to Occupy Oakland (see "Deanna Santana Tried to Alter Damning Report," 9/19/12).

The issue highlighted one of the specific challenges that Oakland faces moving ahead with open government initiatives: trust. Almost every civic hacker I spoke to mentioned mistrust of government as a major hurdle in Oakland, but also one that their efforts are precisely designed to combat.

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