The city of Oakland in San Francisco Bay has demonstrated its pioneering approach to tech innovation on a number of occasions, one example being the RecordTrac platform, which enables citizens to request online access to public documents.
Libby Schaaf has been running Oakland City Hall under the Democratic Party flag since January 2015. She was recently invited to the City Innovate Summit held in San Francisco in mid-June, to discuss the topic of the Smart City. One of her ambitions is to help young startups in the area to get up and running.
L’Atelier: the city of Oakland recently set up a platform that enables residents to request access to public documents online. Why did you decide to make this facility available and what has been the impact on the city and its residents?
Libby Schaaf: Under the Federal legislation enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act, local government has to make public documents accessible to anyone who requests them. In the past, each request used to be dealt with separately, which meant a lot of work for City Hall employees. They had to look out the documents, photocopy them, make sure that they didn’t contain any confidential or private information and then send them to the requester. The need for an online platform was even greater after the Occupy Oakland demonstrations, when we had to process literally thousands of requests. City Hall was totally overwhelmed. The problem was submitted to Code for America, a not-for-profit organisation which brings information technology experts in to help local authorities find solutions. These people created RecordTrac, a website which enables Oakland citizens to submit their requests online, which can then be seen by everyone. You can track the processing of your request, as you would track a parcel delivery: who’s dealing with your request, where it is in the process right now, and so on. Lastly, the documents are scanned and uploaded on to the website, so that everyone can access them. We get a lot of requests on the same subject so we can save a lot of time like that.
Now the City of New York, and even the federal government, are planning to use our app, which was designed as an open source platform and so can be used by everyone. In addition to the benefits from RecordTrac, working with new technology experts has changed our way of looking at things. Although they finished working with us over a year ago, we’ve continued to work on innovation.
[Editor’s note: The people who created RecordTrac have since founded a startup called NextRequest]
The city of Oakland is promoting a number of innovation initiatives
Have the City authorities implemented any other initiatives to enable citizens to benefit from the new technologies?
Well we ran CityCamp, a hackathon set up by the city, which brought together city employees and members of the public to spend a day thinking about the way technology can help local government to solve current problems. Also, a group of young people working in the new technologies created Open Oakland, an organisation of volunteers who meet together every Tuesday evening at Oakland City Hall to discuss the community’s various problems. The City of Oakland has made a large amount of public information available on the Internet, and these young people are now working to create apps and websites designed to make good use of the data.
One example is the city budget, which was voted two years ago. It’s extremely complex. The City spends over a billion dollars every year on municipal services which benefit 400,000 people, but it was practically impossible to understand exactly how the money was being spent. To solve this problem, the volunteers created a website called Open Budget Oakland, which provides a superb, intelligible view of the budget. You can see what percentage of the total budget is allocated to each category, and then go down a level to see how each category is made up, and so on. You can also find out about the City’s various sources of revenue, the differences between the original budget proposed by the mayor and the version that was finally passed, and so on. In short, they’ve done a great job of setting out an extremely complex budget – which otherwise looks like a pretty thick book – in a single picture that’s clear and accessible to everyone.
This way of taking data and making it intelligible to a wide public has great potential for electoral campaigns…
That’s right. Open Oakland also studied the campaign contributions to the various candidates during the last City elections, and highlighted the differences. For instance they created graphics to show which job categories candidates drew their support from, compiled a map of the Bay area with different size dots showing which areas the different candidates’ donors came from. It’s now a matter of making this type of information available during every election in California.
At the present time a large number of people in the United States no longer bother to vote in the elections. We have to do something to make citizens re-discover their love of democracy, because if government is going to work properly we need their involvement. I think Open Data can help to create greater transparency, to give citizens a clear picture of what the government’s doing so they know where their tax dollars are going, so that they see how important it is to participate in the democratic process. That’s also why, when I was a member of the Oakland Municipal Council, I drafted a bill requiring election candidates to make their campaign accounts available in electronic format. If the data isn’t available on a computer, it’s very difficult to visualise and analyse it. It’s important that legislators keep that in mind.
Can open data processing help to revive people’s democratic instincts?
At the City Innovate Summit 2015 you pointed to the potential for data analysis to improve policing…
Yes. Oakland is currently taking part in a White House initiative on open data in policing. We were one of the first cities in America to make portable cameras part of police uniforms, so that whenever an officer interacts with a citizen, the entire interaction is video’d. But what do you do with this data afterwards? In partnership with Stanford University, we’re now working on processing these videos with analytical software. Based on such criteria as tone of voice and the words used, we can see whether the encounter is relatively gentle or rather rough. This way you can identify situations where things get nasty and other times when a tense situation turns into a friendly conversation. That will help us to improve the training of police officers, based on examples of what to emulate and what to avoid doing. For the moment it’s still a pilot project but we’re looking forward to seeing what potential it has.
What major changes do you think the city of tomorrow will undergo?
I’m really hooked on the sharing economy. You have an automobile and some free time, I open my Uber app, you take me where I want to go, I give you some money and everybody gets something out of it. But maybe in the near future we’ll be taking an Uber car that drives itself. Maybe nobody will be driving anymore because all cars will be self-driving…I think this has a lot of potential. It could improve our quality of life, reduce CO2 emissions and also considerably reduce the number of road accident victims. So the government ought to be more flexible here, more lively and more adaptable in fostering the adoption of this type of new technology. At the moment the regulatory process is very slow. We ought to be adjusting to the pace of innovation.
How can government foster the development of the sharing economy?
To go back to my previous example, government used to regulate taxis. When Uber arrived, taxi firms got angry and their anger was justified because the legislation that governs their business is much stricter than for Uber. But I still don’t think that government ought to hamper innovation. You need to find the right balance. You need to look at the rules governing taxi cabs and the reasons why these rules were established in the first place. For instance, cab drivers have to take an exam in advance about ensuring the safety of the passengers they’ll be transporting. Are these tests effective? Should Uber drivers have to take the exam as well? This is the sort of question government ought to be asking, always keeping the citizens’ interests as their basic goal.
Co-working spaces provide places for sharing and interaction
Isn’t citizens’ well-being, making sure people can have a pleasant life in the city, also something that drives innovation?
That’s right. What I find really exciting about tech innovation is that nowadays it includes a social dimension. Innovating is not just about shutting yourself away in a room and coming up with an awesome code sequence. It’s also about getting to know people and the products they’re working on, or problems they’re making an effort to solve. It’s basically about opening up, sharing. That’s why we encourage the creation of co-working spaces in Oakland. This not only enables entrepreneurs to save money because they don’t need to rent offices just for themselves but also to collaborate with the other people that are sharing the premises. Most of these co-working spaces organise events, invite experts and entrepreneurs, they eat meals together and I’m convinced that this buzz, all these connections, helps to drive innovation onwards and upwards. Innovating is about having new ideas and you’ve got more chance of having new ideas if you talk to other people than if you stay sitting in your own little corner.