For the past few days, I’ve been receiving Twitter and Facebook notifications about the news that Spike and I are stepping down from OpenOakland. The show of support we’ve received has reminded me of the incredible community of talented and passionate people that I’ve been a part of for the past four years — a community comprised of people whose work I respect and admire and whose support means a lot to me.
So with that I mind, I want to reflect on what this experience has meant for me and what I hope will continue for OpenOakland in the future.
In 2012, as part of my Code for America fellowship, I was given the opportunity to choose a mentor from a list of very impressive people. From early on I knew that I wanted to work with Steve Spiker. Spike was known throughout Oakland as an expert on and passionate advocate for the city, a city that I was increasingly becoming involved with. That decision has influenced much of my work to this day. It was in these conversations that we first conceived of the idea of OpenOakland.
Steve and I knew that there was a wealth of talented people with a strong sense of civic duty who lived in the city, but we were not sure if there was an outlet for this energy. It was with this sense that we started reaching out to people.
At first, we met at Spike’s office at Urban Strategies Council and then at the Oakland Tribune building. In one of these early meetings, Nicole Neditch, then the city’s Online Engagement Manager, suggested that we meet at City Hall. I recall realizing, even then, that this venue change was going have an impact on us. And it did. It was then OpenOakland took on what I consider to be its modern form — an independent organization that brings designers and technologists together to work on meaningful projects at City Hall.
The decision to work out of City Hall presented us with an interesting question: were we a watchdog group that demanded change or collaborators who joined the city in tackling their challenges? On the one hand, we had access to staff and buy-in, but on the other we were all volunteers and participating out of our own drive to forge a stronger Oakland. Would a close working relationship with city staff lead to the perception (or reality) that we wouldn’t push when needed?
To this day, we still wrestle with this question. I think, though, that this tension, and OpenOakland’s awareness of it, provides for the best of both worlds. For most projects the combination of access and independence has served the organization well.
For three years we forged ahead, meeting every week.
Every once in while I wondered how sustainable this was. I feared that one day no one would show up. But I am I still amazed that, every Tuesday at 6:30pm in Hearing Room 3, there will be one or two dozen OpenOaklanders asking questions and proposing new projects.
But keeping this pace has challenging for me. Personally, I found it difficult managing existing projects and relationships while engaging in new ones. For example, I started a company and wanted to make sure I still had time for friends and family, and suddenly I was not keeping up the way I wanted to. Last year Spike and I first started discussing how to transition OpenOakland without us at the helm.
Fortunately, there was a leadership team in place (Tonya, Bobby, Ronald, Neil, Tarik, Tony, and Ellie)— people who were steadily committed to OpenOakland. Now, they’re taking a starring role. The most recent CityCamp, held in February, was wholly organized by that team. It was the first time that Spike were not involved in organizing the event and the first time that I engaged the Oakland civic tech community as a “civilian.”
Clearly the next phase of OpenOakland is in extremely capable hands.
What comes next is up to who participates, and I’m optimistic and looking forward to what they produce. There’s already a portfolio of existing projects, ranging from small (like Adopt-A-Drain) to large (like Open Budget, CUT, and Open Disclosure.) We have a wealth of projects that regularly receive praise from the press and other cities alike.
As part of my transition, I know that OpenOakland is still looking for funding, so I will be donating what I can to help them in their new phase. Hopefully others do the same and we can ensure that Oakland has vibrant and sustainable civic tech community.
As for what I will do next: I will still be engaged with cities and technology. I think that the civic tech space is changing interesting ways and there are new challenges ahead of us. For example, questions of equity and privacy are becoming more prominent.
So as I step away from OpenOakland, I want to thank everyone who’s supported supported us. It’s been an incredible journey.