A 21st Century alternative May Day event took place in Jack London Square, one not requiring a march to the barricades to participate.

A different kind of revolution was proposed by Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, who spoke on the virtues of Civic Hacking at the 22nd annual luncheon of the Oakland chapter of League of Women Voters (LWV) on the topic “Of the People, By the People, For the 21st Century.”  A wide selection of elected officials and community leaders learned how Code for America helps governments work better for everyone with people power and the web.

Addressing a luncheon audience of almost 300 people, many of them city executives and elected officials, Palka asked “What would society be like if we felt about government the way we feel about our smart phones?”

Her talk gave examples of do-it-yourself democracy happening all over the country with the assistance of new web technologies and smart mobile devices.   Pahlka’s own oddesey began with efforts to bring the more interactive Web 2.0 paradigm to the federal government and the frustrations of dealing with a bureaucracy that moves at a glacial pace.  When a DOD committee proposed building a new interactive web site with older tech at a price of over $70 million, she realized the model for citizen engagement had to change.  After a stint working with Obama’s 2008 on-line campaign, she founded Code for America (CfA) to revamp government with the technologies used by web startups.

Pahlka tried to draw a distinction between voting and participating in government: “Voting is so important, but we can’t change things just by electing new officials. After nearly two and a half centuries, our government needs a major tune up, and you can’t do that without getting under the hood.”

Then Pahlka issued a challenge to the  League: “My goal is to turn the League of Women Voters into the league of women civic hackers.”

This is only the 3rd year that Code for America (CfA) has sent its selected ‘Fellows” to spearhead Government 2.0 initiatives in cities across the US.  But over 30 local initiatives have been successively conducted, resulting in several working applications that support citizen’s participation and also on-going efforts to change and open local governments. This year, Oakland is one of the targeted cities for the Fellows program.

A link to the prior OL article on Fellows is HERE 

The Fellows working with Oakland’s government aim to increase citizen participation and are focused on two things:  revamping the complex procurement processes for the city, and simplifying and speeding up the handling of Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests, some of which have exceeded statutory limits.

“There is a great story of how technology can involve citizens and its an Oakland story,” Pahlka told the luncheon audience.  “Its really happening here!”

“Some of the tools of democracy are different today, but what’s not different is that we have to use them, and we have to think about the values we’re expressing when we use them.  We have to think about how we want to live with others in our community, and build and use tools with that intention,” Pahlka explained.  “I think Oakland has the right values, we have the tools, and we have the people who want to create the Oakland we want to live in. ”

See the Slide Show of this event:  LWV Luncheon 2013

Palkha also described three recently released apps from Open Oakland, including a now in-use visualization app for the proposed city budget: openbudgetoakland.org

Open Oakland, our local CfA brigade, will be organizing an Oakland Answers web site for citizen questions and answers. This will be based on the Successful “Honolulu Answers”  website project which used a public Write-a-Thon to get citizens and city employees to produce the fresh, useful, and user-friendly content to questions citizens are likely to ask.

You can see a CfA presentation on this citizen’s effort and also the Blight Status app from New Orleans HERE.

The “Oakland ReWrite” event is planned for June 1st, which is the national “Day of Civic Hacking” in many cities, including Oakland. This will not be a techie event, Pahlka said. Open Oakland is encouraging representatives of environmental, civic, and justice groups to participate in providing the most complete and relevant information for all Oakland residents.

Open Oakland has already held two city-oriented hackathons and supports the Oakland Wiki project.  Open meetings are held at City Hall every Tuesday night and this is where several projects are in progress. Information on brigade activities is available at OpenOakland.org.

Pahlka was named one of the “Women to Watch” by Diablo Magazine this month.  The group selected by Diablo are ” women of creativity and courage who are changing the way our world works. ”

LVW Annual Awards

Before Pahlka spoke, Oakland Chapter President Katherine Garzy and other chapter members  introduced this year’s winners for the  Making Democracy Work Award.  The annual awards honor people and groups that make significant contributions to Oakland, its residents and its government.

Making Democracy Work Award winners:

  • Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont, Executive Director, Oakland Rising
  • Naomi Schiff, Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt & Oakland Heritage Alliance
  • San Pablo Avenue/Golden Gate Neighborhood Associations
  • West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, led by Margret Gordon and Brian Beveridge
Naomi Schiff with her 2013 Democracy award and family.

Naomi Schiff with her 2013 Democracy award and family.

One Response

  1. Katherine Gavzy

    Congratulations on your excellent coverage of the League of Women Voters of Oakland’s All-City Luncheon and the talk by our keynote speaker Jen Pahlka of Code for America. The League was thrilled to welcome Code for America to Oakland, as they share our goals of open & transparent government and informed citizen participation. One small correction to your story : there were 380 guests present, not nearly 300. This was our most successful event ever.


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