Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Better Way to Get Answers from the City

By Vanessa Rancaño
Tue, Jun 18, 2013 at 9:40 AM

Anyone who’s tried to use the City of Oakland’s website knows it's something like this clip from 1986's Labyrinth, in which Jennifer Connelly seeks answers from a senile Muppet who speaks entirely in ridiculous platitudes and non sequiturs: The search function is basically useless and information isn’t organized intuitively for layfolk.

Enter Oakland Answers, a new website dedicated to answering citizen’s questions about city services. It’s the latest collaboration between the city and OpenOakland, a team of civic-minded hackers associated with Code for America — the same people who helped launch the city’s open data website.

The application is built around the idea that people usually dive into the Internet with a search. The most prominent feature of Oakland Answer’s streamlined site is a search bar. You can type in single words, like “permits” or “jobs,” or you can type in a full question. The site’s still in beta, but a query like “Where do I get a bus pass?” produces an answer that references AC Transit retail locations and links to the agency’s retail locations finder and its mail order form. It also links to info about Clipper cards.

Try typing that question into the city website’s search bar and you’ll get 567 results that range bizarrely from Councilwoman At-Large Rebecca Kaplan’s info page to a Transportation Task Force report from 2006 to info about the Oakland Museum’s “Natural Sciences Guild Day Trip."

Nicole Neditch, the city’s online engagement manager, is helping to oversee the Oakland Answers project. She admits the city’s internet labyrinth can be hard to navigate and offered the searchable Q-and-A page as an antidote. “As we develop it further we see it as being an integral part of the city’s website,” she said. “That will be one of first things [people] see on site.

“The city answers so many questions,” Neditch continued, and shrinking resources are pressing staff to find new ways to disseminate information. She sees Oakland Answers as part of the solution. “There’s a sense of excitement about being able to get people the answers they’re looking for," she said.

According to a city press release, the site is organized the same way people think about problems or concerns rather than the way the city is organized internally. It’s based on “Honolulu Answers,” an application built for that city by the 2012 Code for America Fellows, and adapted for Oakland's needs. Neditch and others looked at the traffic analytics for the city's website to understand what kind of information people were looking for most often. She said parking and employment-related queries were most common.

The whole project was put together in about two weeks. First, city staffers produced a list of the questions they’re most often asked by citizens, then on June 1 hackers from OpenOakland and Code for America Fellows developed content for Oakland Answers during a local National Day of Civic Hacking event. They brainstormed questions and drafted answers that were later vetted by city staff “while preserving the community-driven tone of the website,” according to the city’s press release.

The idea is that with time the database of questions and answers will grow. The city plans to maintain the site, but Neditch said she hopes to create a function that lets people contribute questions and answers that will then be vetted by city staff. She's currently working on another function that files questions in a queue to be answered by staffers and made public on the site.

“It’s never really going to be done,” Neditch said, noting that there will never be a lack of new questions, “but it’s a start.”

If you’re interested in getting involved with ongoing efforts to increase access to information, OpenOakland meets Tuesdays from 6:30-9:00pm in City Hall’s Hearing Room 3.

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