Opening Government: Oakland’s First CityCamp

I recently co-founded an organization called OpenOakland with Code for America alumni Eddie Tejeda. One of our passions was that we both believe that government can and should be much more than a vending machine. It’s no secret that current local governments have a ton of changing to do, but we think it is unlikely that these changes will come about swiftly without all of us being involved and engaged and through supporting our government staff and leaders to make these changes.

For OpenOakland, running a CityCamp was a clear way for us to move our mission forward — supporting open, agile, and engaged government. On December 1, 2012 we held the first ever CityCamp Oakland, inside city hall, in council chambers. We welcomed 121 local technology professionals, government staff from almost every city department and community members to a full day’s unconference.

A CityCamp gives those attending the opportunity to set the agenda themselves; we asked registered guests to suggest ideas using a new platform the City had recently adopted: (built by MindMixer). This approach not only gave people a sense of empowerment — in that they can create the sessions they want to lead or participate in — it gave us, and our attendees, a great way to continue conversations beyond that one day using the same web platform for discussion and sharing. We helped seed the ideas with a few topics of interest to OpenOakland members and started the day with more than 30 ideas to consider. The topics were refined through attendees voting on each idea. In the end, we held 16 different sessions throughout city hall.

Our sessions covered issues from open data, a GIS/spatial roundtable discussion, pubic safety data, freedom of information (FOIA) requests, civics 101, diversity and the digital divide, and (a local wiki built by OpenOakland that provides a forum for Oaklanders to tell their own stories about their community). While there was an initial level of discomfort for many people, this open format event does lend itself to unpredictable conversations that could never happen in other settings. With no solid agenda, no forced engagement we all participated in rich conversations, discussing topics we were passionate about. We left inspired and encouraged.

Some take-aways were significant and some minor, but all required a safe, respectful environment that this event helped create. Take for example the city staffer who learned that saving data as a PDF is actually a barrier to others being able to easily access and make use of the data.This is not an earth changing lesson, but it illustrates the value of open communication.

The real test of any social or civic change is that of time, and so it remains to be seen how lasting the impacts of this CityCamp will be. I’m optimistic that we are on the right track — that positive, supportive approaches can help to transform our city governments into the 21st century institutions we need them to be.

One city staffer wrote, “we can look forward to a whole new push in communications, data, transparency, ease of access because of [OpenOakland’s] efforts to work with us and join in to the larger civic conversation.”

I believe that these type of events can go a long way to healing some of our past wounds and to opening up doors to not only better collaboration, but to informed engagement by all citizens.

“[Civic hackers] are our new age city advocates. Just like our tried and true volunteers who wear vests and bring shovels, these new style digital folks, use an iPad, the cloud, and zeros and ones to engage the citizenry, help government get the word out, make things easier, faster, better! They are committed to Oakland, and are generous with their skills and amazing abilities and know how,” commented a City staffer in attendance.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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