Last winter, an exciting thing happened in Oakland: three Code for America fellows started working at City Hall. Oakland was one of the cities Code for America selected. At the time, Mayor Jean Quan said, “The City of Oakland is honored to have been selected to participate in the 2013 Code for America program. We are excited for change and committed to leveraging the power of apps, software and the web to make Oakland a more efficient, transparent and participatory city.”

Here we are, 6 months into the program, for which Oakland reportedly had to raise more than $180,000 in funding, and Oakland Local caught up with the fellows — Cris Cristina, Sheila Dugan, and Richa Agarwal — to find out what they’ve been up to.

Q: When did the Code for America team start in Oakland?

Sheila: In February 2013, we began our one-month “residency” in the City of Oakland. The goal was to learn more about the city and its challenges. We spoke to City employees from a variety of departments, including the Oakland Police Department, Parks and Recreation, the City Clerk, and the City Administrator’s office. We also had an opportunity to connect with members of the community who didn’t work in City Hall.

Q: What are you working on now?

Sheila:  We are working on a web application to help the City manage public records requests. The web application will also allow members of the public to view current and past requests, and the records provided by the City. What makes our project unique is that we are trying to help the public understand how records requests are fulfilled by making every action a city employee takes to fulfill a request trackable and public. This includes tracking how many city staff members had to work on a particular records request, when the City needs an extension, the reasons they close a public records request, and any messages they send to the requester.

 Q: Which projects that you have done are live now?

Sheila:  The public records request management system we have is currently being tested by Oakland City employees. We want to make sure that it meets the needs of all departments and a variety of records requests. We plan on having a public launch of the web app in mid-September. We will then spend the next two months guaranteeing the City of Oakland can successfully manage the application.

We  also collaborated with the City of Oakland staff, OpenOakland (Oakland’s Code for America Brigade), and other Oakland residents on the deployment of Oakland Answers, a plain language question-and-answer site that makes it easier for people to navigate city information and services quickly.

Q: How did the team decide what to work on?

Sheila: We wanted a project that would address a real need in Oakland. We also wanted to work on a project we found engaging, but that would still be completed by the time our fellowship ended in November. Another thing that attracted me to the project is that the city was interested in looking at the processes surrounding the provision of public records, and didn’t just focus on the technology.

Q: Does each team member have a specific role on a project?

Cris: I’m primarily responsible for the user research and design. I’ve also been heavily involved in the front-end development, which is a new and challenging role for me.

Richa: I’m primarily responsible for the back-end development of the application, which has been in python. But given the small size of the fellowship teams, we all take a multidisciplinary approach and help each other out where we can.

Sheila: I have a background in public policy. I attend working group meetings on the process surrounding the provision of public records.

Q: When do the Fellows leave Oakland?

Cris: I’ve been living in Oakland for the last six years or so, and have no plans to leave when the fellowship ends. Love this town!

Richa: I live in San Francisco currently, but I did live in Oakland during our “residency” month in February and really loved it! I would definitely consider moving to Oakland at some point.

Sheila: The Code for America fellowship ends in November. Many of us will never “leave” Oakland. Cris has been living in Oakland for several years. I plan on remaining in the Bay area after the fellowship.

Q: What will you have accomplished by the end of the fellowship?

Richa: Built into the web application is an inherently interactive, transparent model for communication between government employees and their communities. Public records requests is one of the many ways in which governments interact with citizens, but capturing these interactions, shining a light on the process itself, is really valuable. It’s a huge accomplishment for us to have Oakland adopt this, but my hope is that this is a tool other cities can adopt as well.

Sheila: Of course, we want to leave behind a web application that is used by all departments and member of the community. Even more important is providing the City of Oakland with a model of how to harness new technologies to better connect with the community and improve how they do business.

Code for America has an active fellowship program, with many staffers and fellows residing in Oakland. One path to getting more involved with Oakland-focused projects is to check out the OpenOakland group, which meets every Tuesday at City Hall.

About The Author

Susan Mernit is editor & publisher of Oakland Local ( a news & community hub for Oakland, CA. A former VP at AOL & Netscape, & former! Yahoo Senior Director, Mernit was consulting program manager for The Knight News Challenge, 2008-09; was a 2012 Stanford Carlos McClatchy Fellow; and is a board adviser to The Center for Health Reporting at USC, Annenberg School of Journalism. She has consulted with many non-profit organizations on strategy, product development and social media/engagement, including, TechSoup Global, Public Radio International and the Institute for Policy Studies/Economic Hardship Reporting Project, led by Barbara Ehrenreich.

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