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Cracking Oakland's Code

Can a group of hackers figure out new answers to the city's old problems?



Back in 2007, Michal Migurski noticed that the City of Oakland's crime-mapping site, Crimewatch, was nearly impossible to navigate — not to mention stuck in the late Nineties, design-wise. The site contained useful information, but because of its clunky interface, it wasn't really helpful. But for Migurski, who works at an online design and mapping firm in San Francisco, it provided the perfect challenge.

For weeks, Migurski worked late at night hacking the city's data, trying to find a way to take the daily crime stats and create code that would present the information in a new, user-friendly format. With the help of his colleagues, he created Oakland Crimespotting, a website that allows people to track crimes by date, neighborhood, and crime type, all laid out on a relatively intuitive interactive map. The website became an instant success: Neighborhood crime prevention councils, which previously had to hunt down data from the Oakland Police Department, now had better information with just a few clicks. Oakland Crimespotting was, essentially, a timesaver for everyone involved. And, as the saying goes, information is power.

Nine months after the site went online, however, the city blocked Migurski from retrieving any more of its data. "They weren't too happy about it," Migurski recalled. "They felt that we were misusing the service and putting undue stress on their servers. I don't think that was the case because at this point we'd been running the site for months. It wasn't anything new." However, a few months later, the city had a change of heart. Instead of just letting Migurski continue as before, officials promised they'd start providing him with the information on a daily basis. And in the five years since, the city has never failed to deliver. The city's initial misgivings weren't entirely surprising, Migurski noted. "We were basically asking something of them that they'd never considered giving out before," he said. But the city's shift in attitude reflects a sea change in government that's taking place across the country — not just in Oakland.

In 2009, so-called civic hackers like Migurski were given the equivalent of a divine ordinance. That's when President Barack Obama issued the Open Government Directive, a memorandum that called for increased transparency in government by freeing up data for everyone to use. Since then, more and more municipalities have been working with civic-minded hackers to help cities make websites and apps that matter. The idea is that data — whether on crime, budgets, liquor licenses, or disease outbreaks — can be organized and presented in a way that's more useful to the public. And giving people greater access to data not only increases transparency, but it also makes people better informed. The ultimate goal is to create a more engaged citizenry, which, in the grandest Obama vocabulary of the movement, is "the essence of democracy."

"It's a new definition of transparency," said Jen Pahlka, an Oakland resident and founder of Code for America, an organization that brings together cities and hackers to solve problems using technology through a year-long fellowship program. "Transparency shouldn't just be about holding your government accountable; it's about changing the relationship between people and government."

And there's perhaps no better place for such a movement to take root than in Oakland, where a combination of factors — a tech-savvy workforce; an activist-oriented, DIY-minded populace; and a cash-strapped government with few resources — make for a ripe environment in which to create meaningful breakthroughs in civic hacking. Thanks in large part to the city's new online engagement director, Nicole Neditch, the city has been actively working with hackers on various projects: In December, more than one hundred librarians, students, small business owners, city staff, and coders attended City Camp, an event at City Hall that aimed to get different groups of people involved in finding creative technological solutions to city problems. On January 3, three Code for America fellows will begin an eleven-month project to build much-needed apps for the city. And later this month, the city will roll out an "open data portal," freeing up more than thirty datasets on crime, property, and public works requests, which they hope will be put to good use by the city's intrepid coders.

Certainly, these endeavors are admirable. But the goals they aim to achieve — and whether they can actually achieve them — aren't so clear-cut. Getting people to actually use the apps, sustaining the sites after the hackers have left, and dealing with the city's still-significant digital divide are only some of the challenges these new measures face, and for that reason it's unclear whether they'll actually lead to a more efficient, let alone a more democratic, Oakland.

Advocates of civic hacking note that the technology is simply a means to an end, not the end in itself. Oakland Crimespotting, for example, was successful because it allowed people to easily see the crime in their neighborhoods, and gave them a platform for a more productive conversation about crime. "It's not about the technology," Pahlka said. "It's about the people and the conversation they are having."

Perhaps, but in a city fraught with complex problems, are apps really the answer to Oakland's woes?

For many, the term "hacking" still mostly brings to mind negative connotations. "It probably got misinterpreted as a negative term for breaking security systems in the Seventies or Eighties," Migurski said. But for a long time, the term simply meant "finding interesting, weird, or elegant solutions to a problem."