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Network City

Ian Eck | June 13, 2014 | Story Tech World

Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

To see the full version of the diagram above, click here.

Walk into Hearing Room 3 in Oakland’s City Hall on any given Tuesday evening, and you’re greeted with an array of pizza and laptops, a scene that’s more hacker hostel than government office (in a good way). What you’re seeing is OpenOakland, a volunteer group that strives to make government work better by marshaling the tools, principles, and vocabulary of tech.

Under the loose and amiable leadership of Eddie Tejeda and Steve Spiker, the group’s cast of coders, city employees (the mayor has been known to drop in), and community leaders has already built a slick visualization of Oakland’s budget (Open Budget) and helped create a service that locates low-cost childcare in the city (EarlyOakland). Its newest project is a website that catalogs buildings with a high chance of earthquake damage (working title: SoftStory).

OpenOakland is but one element of a movement that’s quietly made Oakland a national forerunner in bridging the gap between tech innovation and government. Pioneered by organizations like Code for America, the so-called civic hacking movement takes activism as a guiding principle and the power of tech for social good as a given. And while San Francisco’s attempts to connect government and tech have come in fits and starts—see then-mayor Gavin Newsom’s abortive attempt to establish free Wi-Fi citywide—in Oakland, such efforts have bloomed.

“It’s fertile ground,” says Karen Boyd, Oakland’s communications director and one of the many city leaders working to transform the city’s clunky civic process into a collaborative, tech-savvy, transparency-oriented machine. “Oakland has a very dynamic sense of place, a very dynamic ecosystem in the way that artists and progressives interact. This is a highly creative, highly educated, highly involved community, and people see it as a place to try ideas.”

This network provides a glimpse into this tech-lubricated ecosystem, a tangle of partnerships, inspirations, and monetary investments that interconnects city departments, community leaders, and various nonprofit and for-profit groups. It highlights the ideas, events, and projects that have come from these collaborations—like the Open Data Policy, which requires Oakland to make its public data proactively available in usable formats for anyone to access, manipulate, and build upon, and City-Camp, an annual “un-conference” that brings city staff, coders, and community members together for a day to discuss civic solutions. It details the city’s relationship with third-party organizations like Kiva Zip, which works with the city to provide crowd- funded microloans to local businesses, and SeeClickFix, which allows citizens to take pictures of neighborhood issues and report them on an online public forum. And it shows how a multitude of Oakland-based groups have devoted themselves to leveling the techno-literacy playing field: Hack the Hood, for example, uses real-world consulting projects to teach kids technical skills.

The full network could cover an entire wall—in fact, Susan Mernit’s website Live Work Oakland attempts that task and then some—but the message it sends is clear: Oakland’s civic hacking network is open, cooperative, and deeply interconnected.

For the network visualization, click here.

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco.

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