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Code for America and OpenOakland.org…. Part 1

It was end of September 2014 that Heddy , my office colleague, pointed me to an event of Code for America (CfA) in San Francisco. When I searched on the web, I discovered that it was their 2014 Annual Conference… unfortunately I had just missed it since it had taken place just a few days before…

I continued searching their web site and started learning interesting things about them. Code for America was created back in 2009 and the main player, and founder, behind CfA is Jennifer Pahlka . In her TED.com speech of 2012, “Coding a better Government” , she said that she created Code for America to get the rock stars of design and coding in America “to work in an environment that represents everything that we are supposed to hate….., to work in Government” …

As stated in their website, “Code for America believes government can work for the people, by the people in the 21st century”. Code for America calls ” engineers, designers, product managers, data scientists, and more “to put your skills to work in service to your country. Let’s bring government into the 21st century together”.

Code for America runs five programs:

  • Brigades: local groups of civic hackers and other community volunteers who meet regularly to support the technology, design, and open data efforts of their local governments
  • Fellowships: small teams of developers and designers work with a city, county or state government for a year, building open source apps and helping spread awareness of how contemporary technology works among the government workforce and leadership
  • The Accelerator: provides seed funding, office space, and mentorship to civic startups
  • Peer Network: for innovators in local government
  • Code for All: organizes similar efforts outside the US, particularly Brigades and fellowship programs in countries around the world

I contacted Code for America through their info mailbox and after a few days I was having some feedback. It took some time until I could visit their premises in San Francisco and meet with Catherine Bracy, Program Director in charge of International Relations. She explained to me how Code for America is organized, working methods, how it gets funded, projects they are particularly proud of and are considered best practice and invited me to participate in some meetings of the Brigades and pointed me to the ones being run in Oakland (OpenOakland.org) and San Francisco. She also put my in contact with Code for Europe.

OpenOakland defines itself as a non-profit civic innovation organization that brings together coders, designers, data geeks, journalists, and city staff to collaborate on solutions to improve the lives of Oaklanders. It is part of Code for America’s Brigade program and holds frequent events for community, local government and tech folks to work together.

Open Oakland focuses on both community technology and open government projects that are supported through community partnerships and engaged volunteers.

Searchingthe web for references and background information on my research, “Co-production in Public Services”,  I found a “Meetup” call from the OpenOakland.org Brigade and I decided to send a request for participation. I quickly received a few replies welcoming my presence and I participated in one of the Tuesday’s “Civic Hack Night” that takes places in one of the meeting rooms of the City Hall in downtown Oakland.

I arrived there at 18:15 and there were very few people in the room, I was greeted by Neil who told me to take a sit, relax and wait for the rest of the people to arrive.

People were arriving regularly and towards 18:30 the room was nearly full (roughly 60 people). The environment was relaxed; some people were already having dinner from boxes they had brought with them.

Spike, one of the Captains of the Brigade, opened the meeting with a few introductory words about the Executive Committee and then gave the floor to the representatives of a number of projects to report on progress.

One former Code for America fellow, apparently now working for a civic engagement oriented company, had ordered some pizzas and before the different project groups gathered scattered around the room, it was “pizza and candy time”.

Gradually people were sitting together to discuss about their projects. A lot of conversations going on at the same time and despite the parallel conversations people in the groups were much focused on their subject, a lot of activity was going on and interesting discussions were taking place.

I decided to start by sitting with Neil and Ronald to tell me about OpenOakalnd.org, the origins, the role, the projects, the decision making, the results, the relationships with other civic organizations and the challenges. They were asking me about my research project and why I was so interested in the Brigade. I told them that they had a very good reputation in Code for America. They said that, in some aspects, they were more advanced than other Brigades and therefore they need now less assistance from Code for America.

OpenOakalnd.org had just created an Executive Committee with 11 members that would have soon an “Away Day” to better know each other and start moving ahead.

Neil , an Irish born but Oakland resident for many years, told me that he have been involved in civic activities in his neighbourhood for some years and thought that his experience could be useful to the Brigade. He explained to me that he does not hack, but he is in support of the projects and the Brigade activities. He said that it would be good to have more contacts with other civic organizations in the city. Ronald, a specialist in leadership who had worked for a NGO for many years, tries to put some framework in the projects and activities of the Brigade and supports the Executive Committee in several matters. I told Ronal that I would like to meet him speak about his ideas.

We spoke about Fellowships and Neil called Eddie, the second Captain of the Brigade, who had been a Code for America Fellow a couple of years before. We agreed that we would have lunch together to speak about it.

Very close to Neil and Ronald’s group there was another one discussing about the possibility of building a system to collect applications for summer jobs for teenagers in Oakland. There was a government official with them and the project group were showing some web sites that could serve as a template for the system. According to the posts on the Google Groups of the Brigade, it was decided not to develop the project for the reasons I will explain in another post.; it illustrates the maturity of the Brigade in terms of decisions regarding the projects.

I asked Neil and Ronal about the attitude of the IT Staff in the City Hall regarding the activities of the Brigade and the applications resulting from the projects. They said that IT staff is so busy with the normal work and their resources are so scarce that they have enough work keeping the lights on and carrying out the existing activities. They do not have any special problem with the work of the Brigade and when requested they are , most of the time, able to deliver data they may have that would be useful for the applications.

It is my understanding, from my informal conversations with developers involved in “hacking for government”, that they think that the IT Staff in City Halls or other departments in Government, would probably not be able to develop the kind of applications that the hacking projects are producing or if they did they would take a lot of time and resources due to the way projects are managed.

There was another group focusing on “transparency” that was being chaired by another city hall official working for the “Ethics Commission”. The brigade released in September 2014 a web application called “Open Disclosure”, which provides campaign finance framework data that shows the flow of money into Oakland mayoral campaigns. They were now working on the extension to other campaigns.

Finally, there was another group discussing about “marketing” of the activities of the brigade; they were writing the ideas on big sheets of paper sticked to the wall. Other group was discussing about a project related to housing in the city. The discussion was very technical and I uderstood it was about how to best display the information.

Phil Wolf, who is also member of the Executive Committee,and very active in the Google group, asked me before leaving the place to write a post about my experience….

Here it is …. And others will follow !!

I am very happy with the experience and grateful to OpenOakalnd.org for their welcome and help.

Stay Tuned

Best

Paco

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