[Net2 San Francisco] Open Source and Open Data in Action

Kevin Lo's picture

The terms "open data" and "open government" have been thrown around in both rich-world and developing country contexts. In the US National Day of Civic Hacking came and gone June 1st, but what does it really look like in action? What sorts of approaches should one take in their communities to foster civic participation and social change? What sorts of outcomes can one expect? We got a glimpse of it when Steve Spiker (@spjika) from OpenOakland and the Urban Strategies Council spoke at a recent San Francisco Tech4Good event. Steve is pioneer in the civic hacking movement and was recently honored by the White House for his efforts.





Data Driven Cities

Steve opened by portraying the "stack" with which an ecosystem can be created:  

  • Access to Free Public Data 
  • Informed Analysis (with local context)
  • Communications of results
  • Community Capacity
  • Engagement
  • Measure Impact

As far as "community capacity" is concerned, Steve argues that while the top three areas "happens in the elite world of researchers and academics, if that community doesn't have the capacity to understand the data and some of the technology to make some decisions around it, then we are keeping the power out of the community's hands generally." Cities and nonprofits alike can improve in all of the above areas in their work.

A Concrete Problem: Connecting People and Services

Steve also talked about a common and recurring problem faced by many cities: people/citizens need (social) services. While there is an online service in 211.org, it's limited to those with online access or smartphones. Its information is not updated and its interface can be confusing to many. Otherwise users usually rely on friends or maybe the library. The conventional solution is to create another custom resource directory for referrals. What they wanted to do was to build something better, avoid duplication, and something worth sharing. Urban Strategies thus built an open-source app that was designed to be redeployable. Its code is hosted online can be used by developers for other cities as well. "Unique systems cost a lot of money", which certainly should be a concern for cities needing to stretch their budgets to deliver services. The fact that they can contribute the code back to the community was also important to them as well. 

UI Matters

For both the resource directory, and another project Steve is working on, he emphasized the important of user interface and user experience. (UI/UX) OpenOakland, a group he founded which he calls a "community organizing group for the tech sector for good", he cited a project similar to the above example where users visit the Oakland city website mostly to answer a specific problem. However, the Oakland city government website is setup in to "represent yourself to the public the same way you structure yourself internally": 

City of Oakland Official City website

In addition to functionality issues, its long page necessitates a lot of scrolling, after which you may still not be able to find the answer you need. OpenOakland instead proposed a wiki based system, akin to many search engines, to produce the most likely answer you need. It also incorporates an analytics backend to improve its results:

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