Hacking the Change You Want to See

On June 1, the City of Oakland will co-host ReWrite Oakland as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking. ReWrite Oakland will be an all day writeathon that will culminate with the launch of a new website called “Oakland Answers,” based on last year’s Code for America project “Honolulu Answers.” Oakland Answers will be citizen-focused website, written in plain-language, that makes it quick and simple for people to find City information and services they are looking for online. City staff and the community will collaborate to answer common questions generated by citizens.

The event is being presented by OpenOakland, a Code for America Brigade that was set up in this past year by Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejada to sustain some of the work that was being done at Oakland’s various hackathons. OpenOakland sought out volunteer coders, designers, data geeks, journalists, and city staff that were interested in collaboratively working together to develop solutions to civic challenges. The group, which I am an active member of, meets weekly in Oakland City Hall. Every week, 15-30 people gather together and work on technology related projects that address a wide range of topics as diverse as crime, sustainability, and early childhood education. In less than a year, the group has stood up several applications including: OpenBudgetOakland, a tool to visually explore the City’s budget; OaklandBeats, a police beat finder; and Adopt a Drain, a tool to help residents adopt and maintain storm drains.

While these apps help with access to public information and promoting volunteerism, the biggest success has not been in the technology, but in the positive effects that the efforts have had on local government and on the community.

Civic hacking develops smarter governance

In addition to the Tuesday night meetings, OpenOakland has worked to develop events that invite City staff to engage in conversations about how technology can positively change the relationships between the City and the community. At CityCamp Oakland, sessions on transparency and open data, civic engagement, youth, and bridging the digital divide had significant interest. By talking openly with City staff, residents gained a level of trust for the work that is being done by local government, and by bridging that relationship, City staff gained valuable insight into the needs of our community.

Civic hacking helps open government

Over the past year, the City of Oakland has made significant advances to increase civic engagement and have a more open government. We have launched EngageOakland.com, an online civic engagement platform; pushed numerous datasets to our new Open Data platform; and actively pursued a Code for America Fellowship. In addition, we have worked on redesigning processes and service delivery that will make our City more open, modern, and efficient.

Much of the success of these open government initiatives has been due to the support of the civic hacking community.

Developing an engaged civic hacking community

Civic hackers can be anyone willing to think up creative, often tech approaches geared towards solving civic problems. Currently we have people engaged in looking at issues around contracting with the City, applying for permits, and accessing public information. With exposure to the complexities of government, civic hackers develop a better understanding of the limitations and possibilities. Even if an app never gets launched, it is not a failed cause. With people actively participating in the development of these applications, we’re fostering a more engaged community, eager to contribute to their City and help solve problems as they arise.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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Mark Forman

Kudo’s to Oakland here. While I think it is important for citizens to know that their government listens to their needs, it would be nice to have some hard results regarding how government has been made measurably better from hackathons. Is there any data documenting reduced operating costs, reduced errors, faster response to hard needs (e.g. potholes filled)?

I am trying to figure out if these are becoming more of a public relations stunt, a way to rapidly reduce the bureacratic maze for common transactions (such as getting a pothole filled, registering for city/county rec programs, or turning in someone violating an ordance), or a means to bandaid symptoms of poor government performance by only addressing how citizens see problems. I understand how leaders who can’t fix poor performance through management might be tempted to get citizens engaged in mitigating the effects of bad management, but can they engage with citizens to change productivity of underlying operations or is this just today’s fad to get around having to do the hard work needed?