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What happens when community members, technologists, city officials, and librarians join forces at City Hall to talk about how to improve their community? The answer is: something pretty amazing. I was lucky enough to attend CityCamp Oakland earlier this month to see this collaboration in action.
Here's what I learned.
CityCamp organizers set the tone for the day with this definition:
"Civic Hacking is the awareness of a condition that is suboptimal in a neighborhood, community, or place and the perception of one's own ability to effect change on that condition. The apps are incidental."
Kalimah Priforce elaborated on this point. Priforce is the co-founder of Qeyno Labs, which sponsors hackathons "by the people, for the people." He told CityCamp attendees that civic hacking is not about the technologies being used. It's about the problems being addressed, and feeling empowered to help solve those problems.
By that definition, everyone who wants to make positive change in a particular place is a civic hacker. For example, Priforce described Martin Luther King, Jr. as "one of our greatest hackers."
I love how this definition of hacking expands who can (and should!) be involved in civic hacking. It's not just technologists or data experts, but also community members, activists, and government officials.
Technology solutions are sometimes created without the input of the people they are intended to benefit. Not so in Oakland. Mai-ling Garcia, the city of Oakland's online engagement manager, put it succinctly: "We're not here to build applications for you, we're here to build applications with you."
I saw this principle in practice in the sessions I attended. For example, a "voting tools" session facilitated by WeVote generated discussion among participants on the barriers to voting and how to reduce them. WeVote is a nonpartisan volunteer organization focused on creating tools to empower voters, including a mobile app to help voters make informed decisions. Discussions like those at CityCamp inform the technology solutions the group will be creating.
This inclusive spirit was also reflected in the structure of the event itself. CityCamp was an "unconference," meaning that the agenda was defined by the participants, who pitched and voted on session ideas.
There were 36 participant-generated sessions on topics as varied as:
As a librarian, I am philosophically (some might even say rabidly) in support of free and open access to information. Oakland clearly has the same philosophical commitment. As it says on the city's open data website:
"Open data increases transparency, access to public information, and improves coordination and efficiencies among agencies and partner organizations. Allowing people to access, visualize, and sync to public information promotes a new kind of civic engagement and allows Citizens to provide valuable feedback on local issues."
Oakland is therefore making data on crime, city budgets, public works activities, and much more directly available to its citizens.
While there are many potential benefits, there are also technical and organizational challenges to open data. I got a tiny peek at some of those issues during CityCamp.
One technical issue is the use of PDFs on Oakland's city website (nonprofits, other government websites, and many other organizations do this as well).
PDFs are great for preserving the final format of a document, but they are nearly useless for any kind of robust analysis. So, for example, if you want to compare statistics on Oakland's public schools, you would have to dig through individual PDF reports for each school separately to find the data.
Oakland currently has more than 30,000 PDFs on its website, which means a lot of data still isn't available in a format that is easy to extract and use for additional analysis.
To address this issue, the city is thinking about including an "I want that dataset" link alongside PDFs on the city website, to allow citizens to request the underlying data from a PDF. This would be a way to notify officials that data should be added to the city's open data website.
It can also be politically difficult to make the move to full transparency. I spoke with Aaron Pava of CivicActions (a CityCamp sponsor), and he used the example of not being able to find data on the number of shootings by police officers.
He said this is data that police departments around the country are tracking, but it is not made publicly available. As Pava told me: "It takes courage and faith for people in public service to make that leap to potentially airing their dirty laundry."
As a former Oakland resident, I pay attention to the city's open government and civic hacking initiatives. We've even covered some of those initiatives here on TechSoup, including Oakland Answers and the Open Disclosure project.
But I was still absolutely blown away by the city's level of engagement and its commitment to open data. The event itself was held in Oakland City Hall and a number of city departments attended the event. Oakland's incoming mayor, Libby Schaaf, even stopped by to close the conference and to award "Civic Innovator" medals to city staff.
I was especially thrilled to see that the Oakland Public Library was present. I spoke to the OPL community relations librarian, Sharon McKellar, about why she was there. McKellar said that it was important to make government more accessible to the entire community, including those with "varying literacy or languages or degrees of digital literacy" and that the library should be involved in those conversations.
That belief is clearly shared by much of Oakland's city government.
Is your city or town doing anything with open data? Has your nonprofit considered opening up its data? Tell us about it in the comments!
Images 1, 3, and 4: Ariel Gilbert-Knight / CC BY-NC
Image 2: CityCamp Oakland
Image 5: Boston Public Library / CC BY
by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Director, Content, TechSoup
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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