Cracking Oakland's Code 

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

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And yet, while other cities have chief innovation or technology officers, in Oakland — where city staff has been slashed by 25 percent over the last ten years due to budget cuts — an in-house R&D department is just a pipe dream. In the meantime, these projects largely rely on the efforts of online engagement director Nicole Neditch. "As cities all over the country have had to downsize, by opening up data and engaging citizens, it's a way of being able to do more with less," she said. "Ideally we'd like to have a bunch of people dedicated to doing those things, but right now we're just trying to get people across departments to think about things in a new way in the first place."

At Oakland's City Camp event in December, city employees abounded. But Neditch stood out. A tall woman with girlish features who — when not busily typing on her laptop — is usually smiling and shaking someone's hand, Neditch is at least a decade younger than most of her peers at City Hall. She's also one of the city's newest hires, tasked with bringing Oakland out of the Dark Ages of the Internet and into the 21st-century world of online interaction. Along with City Councilwoman Libby Schaaf and Communications Director Karen Boyd, Neditch was one of the main backers of Oakland's partnership with Code for America. Schaaf calls Neditch a "goddess" for her efforts at championing technology in City Hall.

And she's just the right person to do it. Neditch is a programmer, a former co-owner of the cherished Oakland institution Mama Buzz Cafe, and helped launch Art Murmur. She is, in many ways, the very embodiment of community-minded, DIY Oakland.

And she cares — a lot. On Tuesday nights, chances are you'll find her cooped up in a small conference room in City Hall long after most city employees have gone home. That's when members of Open Oakland meet to work on projects as diverse as visualizing budget data and making an app that allows citizens to adopt storm drains in their neighborhoods.

The group officially launched in August after co-captains Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejeda realized that hackathons — day-long coding events focused on quickly churning out apps — were too limited in scope. "We realized doing a hack event once a year for the city just didn't cut it," said Spiker. "It wasn't sufficient that we just did this one thing and then let everything drop." It was also partially the result of Code for America's new endeavor to complement its fellowship program, encouraging civic hackers across the country to organize into regularly meeting coding groups called "brigades." According to a Code for America representative, Open Oakland is now one of the biggest — and most active — brigades in the country.

Tejeda had just finished a Code for America fellowship in New Orleans — which in 2010 had the most blight of any city in America — helping to make a site that allowed people to search by address to find out the status of blighted properties. Previously, people had to wade, by phone, through a complex web of bureaucracy to find out the same information, but now they can see the status of a blighted property with just one click. "It's not just stats — it's specific places, specific people, specific impacts," said Tejeda. "Now people can ask the real questions." In other words, finding out the information shouldn't be the hard part.

It's this same mentality that's informed much of the work that Open Oakland has strived to do. And, luckily, there's no shortage of hackers dedicated to doing just that. "That's one of the reasons we knew Open Oakland would work," said Spiker. "We knew there were a whole bunch of people in Oakland with incredible skills that had good jobs in tech, but they weren't the kind of jobs that were going to change the world in any way." Or, as Neditch said, "It's really just the tech version of Oakland's diverse community of people who like to participate. It's a general DIY way of thinking."

It's certainly impressive that a group of twenty people with day jobs devote outside time simply to help make their city's clunky technology flow more smoothly. To outsiders, it may seem like a puzzling dedication to working on incremental projects with no concrete end goal in sight. But the question is: How long can it last?

When Oakland's three Code for America fellows arrive in February, they'll be embedded in city government for a full month. Working with Neditch and others, it'll be their jobs to identify the city's shortcomings and try to create technological tools that will have the greatest impacts. When Oakland and eight other cities were chosen out of the 29 that applied to have fellows for 2013, Neditch and Boyd suggested some starting points: fixing the city's cumbersome contracting processes (currently largely done on paper) and coming up with a better process for public records requests. It remains to be seen whether these are the projects the fellows will ultimately pursue, but, as Tejeda said, "Building the tools is actually the easy part. The difficult part is actually understanding what you need to build."

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