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Cracking Oakland's Code

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



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"I think one of the biggest problems we've faced is that whenever government operates in a closed fashion, it just asks for and results in distrust and concern that government isn't doing what it's meant to be doing and isn't willing to be questioned," said Open Oakland's Steve Spiker. "But there is a love for this city that's very strong and very rich, and it's got a history of social activism that's carried over in a lot of ways to the tech community."

In the meantime, the biggest question may be whether these projects can stay afloat. After all, Michal Migurski created Oakland Crimespotting for free, and while he's not planning on shutting it down anytime soon, that doesn't change the fact that its existence relies entirely on him. He's made the site's code available for free online, but if city employees don't pick up the slack, it would take another civic hacker to keep it going.

"[The] short answer is that I don't think it's particularly sustainable," said Migurski. "I've been looking at the history of public transportation, which looks a lot like the current data movement. Initially, it was all housing developers laying it out: They'd rip up streets, put down tracks, and it was a really cowboy-ish kind of setup.

"My sense about the civic coding thing is that you still need people who have the itch, interest, and energy to bring the data out in the open and show there's a demand there, and then over time it will be a thing that is expected of cities to provide for their citizens," he continued. "This isn't a cool faddish new thing; it's a thing like police, fire, and transit that citizens need. It's a responsibility that governments have, especially with something like crime. You already run the police, you already collect that data, so it makes sense that the people who collect that data should also be responsible for sharing it with the public." According to a representative from Code for America, its fellows will spend the last few months of their program in Oakland transitioning the maintenance of their sites and apps to the city. Whether city staff will actually be able to sustain the projects is another matter.

Given these issues, perhaps it's wise to have tempered expectations. At City Camp in December, there was no final product, no shiny semi-tangible app or repository that contained the fruits of eight hours of theoretical problem-solving. But when the final closing remarks were given and the last person left the stage, most people were lingering. Attendees were clustered together, talking about things they'd discussed during the breakout sessions of the day, or about their personal projects. Many people exchanged email addresses to meet up at future dates. The event was more than just the sum of its parts; it was simply the beginning of a conversation.

The conversation about Oakland may be long, and it may be complicated, but it's no more long and complicated than the discussions happening in Detroit or New Orleans or Philadelphia. The conversations are happening, but for now, the important ones are still happening offline.

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