Tonight, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved Councilmember Libby Schaaf’s Open Data Policy, requiring Oakland’s public data to be proactively made available in useable formats, which will empower the citizens of Oakland to better access information and work to improve government.

“This is an important step forward in making ‘public information’ actually public,” said Councilmember Libby Schaaf. “Public information and government data belongs to the people of Oakland. By doing a better job of sharing it, government can engage and empower citizens to join us in solving problems, delivering services, and improving our residents’ lives.”

The Open Data Policy itself was drafted in a unique, open, and collaborative manner. Over the summer, Schaaf reached out to the Urban Strategies Council, an organization working to eliminate poverty through education, opportunity, safety, and justice. Urban Strategies organized a public roundtable and an online Google Hangout, and invited experts and interested parties from around the country to join and participate in developing the Open Data Policy.

The collectively written draft was then uploaded and shared as a Google doc, and anyone interested was invited to edit the document and comment on it. The community created draft was also included as part of the finalized proposal that was presented to the City Council, to illustrate the community’s instrumental role in drafting the policy, and make transparent what the Council had changed from the original draft and why.

“The actual process of creating this open data policy was itself truly open and community-oriented,” said Steve Spiker, Research and Technology Director at the Urban Strategies Council, who originated the concept of a community drafted open data policy. “It was inspiring to see how committed the people of Oakland are to making government more transparent, accountable, and collaborative.”

Laurenellen McCann, National Policy Manager at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization working to make government accountable through data, policy, and journalism, said, “Strong, sustainable open data policies get to the heart of how communities share knowledge and decision-making power. Oakland’s collaborative policy-drafting was a strong demonstration that tapping into this potential can have great benefits, even at the start of a community’s open data journey, and we hope other communities will take notice.”

Schaaf also recently joined the Sunlight Foundation to lead a webinar hosted by the National League of Cities about how Oakland successfully put together its Open Data Policy.

“The sometimes cumbersome and obscure bureaucratic processes of Oakland’s City Hall can make us feel that our government is neither by the people nor for the people,” said Schaaf. “This Open Data Policy is a big step in the right direction towards changing that, and I hope other local governments will look to what Oakland has done as a model for how their cities can be more open and accountable.”



31 Responses

  1. R2D2II

    “The sometimes cumbersome and obscure bureaucratic processes of Oakland’s City Hall can make us feel that our government is neither by the people nor for the people,” said Schaaf.

    And that feeling is perfectly justified. No “open data policy” can be of much real use in a city were the data itself is of poor quality. Garbage in, garbage out as they say. Oakland is a long, long way from having a transparent and truly democratic government. This “new” policy is all puff.

  2. Adam Stiles

    “No ‘open data policy’ can be of much real use in a city were the data itself is of poor quality.”

    In that case, should we not have an open data policy? Yes, we have a long way to go, and this is a step in the right direction. Why criticize progress toward your own goal?

    There are people working to improve data quality both within and outside City Hall. OpenOakland is a good way to connect with that effort, as well as CityCamp on Nov. 9.

  3. Mike Linksvayer

    Link to the policy in the article is some crazy redirect. Direct link to where that leads and the policy

    The new policy isn’t all “puff”, but it isn’t the “magic” either. Nobody would claim it is. There be dragon(s):

    Still, a very good move. I hope a similar policy for open source software (which means a lot more in terms of long-term $) quickly follows, and both are enforced.

  4. r2

    Welcome to the real Oakland. Stick around for a few years before you move on and learn a little local history. Oaktown has taken endless “steps in the right direction” over the last several decades and hasn’t yet moved off square one. Square one is where there’s a lot of poverty, crime, community failure and a corrupt and incompetent, unchanging regime downtown.

  5. Susan Mernit

    r2, most of the people quoted in this release and posting comments have been in Oakland 8+ years–how long is a few years, cause I don’t think this group is ignorant of past problems at all–but open data isn’t enough to address “poverty, crime, community failure” for sure.

  6. R2D2II

    A few years in Oakland is enough to know that our same problems have existed for about as long as certain people have been on the City Council and Mayor. That’s something like twice eight years. The pattern is well-established: lip service given to improving various aspects of life in Oakland and governance and then the ball is dropped. Programs are not maintained; management is ignored; follow-up and assessment of success or failure simply does not exist. That’s the reality of life Oakland. Oakland is at the center of one of the most vital economies and cultures anywhere yet it continues to fail. There are reasons for this but they are not that there are not good ideas here. The reasons have to do with getting beyond a good idea. Anyone who has been around the block understands that good ideas are a dime a dozen–what makes the difference is follow-through.

  7. Len Raphael

    OK, I thought I’d give the new records request app a try. On Wed Oct 2 Isubmitted two requests that the system immediately acknowledged as No’s 507 and 515. You can see my requests here and at /507

    507 was “Am requesting a copy of the most recent compensation survey comparing City of Oakland compensation by job classification and experience level with the compensation paid by other US cities. The City website posted such study online about 3 years ago and then removed it.”

    Today the 16th, was the 11th business day and no response yet but it looks like someone is working on it in HR.
    It’s the response to my request 515 that makes me think that this is the same old same old secretive City despite the high tech website.

    No 515 requesting “Copy of any non-audit related agreements with Pandora Media Inc. or affiliates affecting how much Oakland business tax Pandora pays.

    6 days ago
    We cannot provide the requested information because this is not considered Public Information. The O.M.C does not allow the City staff to share these sensitive information. – Annie Y. T”

    The City of SF did have the chutzpah to tell it’s residents that its business tax discount to Facebook was “not considered to be Public information” . When our city officials decide to lower the business taxes of one particular taxpayer for reasons that have nothing to do with a tax audit, that is very much a public matter. Especially so when Pandora is so often cited by City officials as a shining example of a high tech business that loves Oakland.

    Council Member Schaaf, what is a resident supposed to do when their reasonable request is rejected for a subjective reason like this. Not even a citation to the OMC section. Am I supposed to sue the city? Go to the toothless Public Ethics Commission?

  8. Len Raphael

    typo correction: The City of SF did NOT have the chutzpah to tell it’s residents that its business tax discount to Facebook.

  9. R2D2II

    The City of Oakland, in the guise of Council member Schaaf, certainly does have the chutzpah to tell its citizens via Oakland Local that it’s taking that important step towards more transparency.

    When exactly does chutzpah become just plain lying?

  10. Libby Schaaf

    Len –
    I have never heard that Oakland gives Pandora any tax breaks. I’ll ask around, but it would really surprise me to learn that. Oakland does have a policy allowing certain breaks, but the only time I’ve heard it applied was to an office furniture company OneWorkplace, and that was done through the City Council process. The regular tax payments by Pandora are indeed proprietary and not public information.

  11. John Klein

    I wouldn’t go dancing in the streets about some sort of new dawn in the City of Oakland regarding public records. Only two months ago I made a request for records about new billboards being proposed and negotiated by the City Oakland. The responses I got fell into two categories:

    First, nearly all of the records I got were either already public documents. Otherwise, I received emails from various citizens objecting to more billboards in Oakland. With regard to many of these records, I finally filed a complaint with the Public Ethics Commission because the Mayor’s office did not provide a discernible response for over six weeks.

    Second, the real information and documents, ie., how many billboards are being proposed, the locations, the companies and parties involved with the new billboards, etc., were all withheld. Why? The City Attorney determined that this information fell under the attorney-client privilege and therefore, did not need to be disclosed.

    The upshot? Even though I know from City Hall insiders that there are a number of new billboard proposals in the works in the Planning department, despite several Public Records Requests, the City of Oakland did not even acknowledge new bill boards are being planned.

    When the City says they’ve got a new policy, a so-called “Open Data” policy, I think most residents will find that does not mean getting information about what the City of Oakland is doing is quite a different matter.

  12. R2D2II

    There’s a transparency issue being avoided right here and now. Surprise!

    Len asks a common sense question which has to do with whether certain corporate tax payments are available to the public.

    Why would corporate tax payments not be transparent in Oakland?

    That’s the transparency problem. Which the Council member avoids. Surprise!

  13. Len Raphael

    Libby, I don’t know whether there was any special business tax break given Pandora or what possible terms were, but I was told that might have occurred by a reliable source. So I requested info to confirm or deny that happened.

    Correct my understanding that the City’s response is inadequate.

    If there was no such non audit related tax break, then the City should have said have said something to the effect “there are no records”.

    if there are records on the subject,then the City must cite the specific sections of the CA Public Records Act upon which it bases its determination, not Oakland city law. Even if that special tax break was given based on confidential or proprietary info from Pandora, then the right thing would have been to redact such info from the documents and then release them.

    You can lead Oakland to high tech government transparency, but that doesn’t magically make the humans at City Hall any more transparent. Though it does make it really obvious when they’re balking. That’s a good thing.

  14. Adam Stiles

    If people are so cynical about Oakland, can they please just give up completely, including sharing opinions that offer nothing constructive? If you really think all is hopeless, why waste your time on us idiots who are trying to solve problems? I coin a new term: “civic trolling”.

  15. Adam Stiles

    Civic trolling: devoting one’s life to informing citizens that nothing will ever get better; committed to giving up. Over and over.

  16. R2D2II

    Perhaps we can come up with a term for those who don’t read well, who cannot understand complex problems and who confuse articulate, focused criticism for hopelessness.

  17. Len Raphael

    Adam, the people who have given up on improving Oakland governance don’t bother to post detailed responses on Oakland Local.

    Enthusiasm and energy of younger or newer residents like yourself is really good to see because too many of the previous group of mostly young good government advocates either burnt out or moved on in their lives from trying to change Oakland. Browse the now archived site to see that many of the issue we’re still debating here were very thoroughly covered several years ago by participants on that site. The main difference is that some of your “generation” of good govt advocates are less issue focused on issues and more on improving process such as transparency.

    The work that you and others did on Open Budget was/is important. I hope to see you extend it to comparing actual expenditures to the budget; and to to show updated 5 year projections.

    It’s also important to analyse policy issues for the voters because they don’t have the time or information to do it themselves. The print and online media attention to Oakland government issues has never been good. Matt Artz does a lot better than his predecessors in doing some numerical analysis and not regurgitating City Hall press releases the way the Trib did before hime. SF Chron has also improved coverage with their last two reporters.

    Oakland Local, Oakland North, EBexpress have some good pieces also but none of them do in depth analytical journalism of boring issues like our long term budget issues. Readers would fall asleep.

  18. Susan Mernit

    Appreciating all these comments, but want to point out that one of the reasons OL doesn’t do more city hall coverage is that we don’t as of now have a viable way to fund it. Readers are frustrated with government and reluctant to support journalism to cover this issue, while businesses don’t see it as appealing, either in most cases. And local funders don’t see the point of supporting in-depth coverage on any sustained level when the out of town papers cover it. We’d love to do more and welcome suggestions on how to support the beat.

  19. R2D2II

    The official Oakland city hall view has always been identical with that of Susan Mernit of Oakland Local: “We can’t do anything we should be doing because we don’t have the funding.”

    The answer is, and always has been, creative thinking and problem solving.

    Echa Schneider started up the website A Better Oakland a few years ago and got abundant attention because she took an active interest in civic matters in Oakland, did a bit of reading/research and wrote very clearly.

    Oakland Local, or another local medium, could do some very effective work towards helping Oakland citizens (including readers, businesses and local funders) work towards a better future. The ingredients are elemental, as suggested above: some basic curiousity and reading skill and the ability to think clearly and to write well. Unfortunately young journalists in Oakland seem not to be able to get beyond very provincial thinking and ideological constraint. No one in media in this town seems to want to rock the boat.

    Build a better mousetrap and people will flock to buy it. Provide high quality journalism and readership will explode.

    The Oakland Tribune took a big step this morning in an editorial which said that Jean Quan should not run for mayor again. For this town, this was an amazingly courageous step, however obvious and long-overdue.

    Do something new and courageous Oakland Local and you will be repaid in full.

  20. Len Raphael

    We couldn’t expect unpaid good government do-gooders like Echa S, the force behind, to keep doing that much work for free. I made some weak attempts to get some local philanthropists to fund it. Several of us should try that again.

    Nor can we expect advertisers to pay for it either. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

    Susan, what gets more hits: your food and entertainment articles; or the serious journalism ones?

  21. Susan Mernit

    Len, when there is a problem or a breaking story, our serious journalism always greats great traffic, and many of our more eclectic neighborhood news stories get great traffic as well. But on a day to day basis, readers tend to favor stories about arts and culture over stories about police issues.
    Having said that, one of the things we are trying to figure out is how to support more city-metro serious coverage on Oakland Local. Sadly, it is not something that funders want to support, and it is not something that advertisers want to support either, it seems; so we do as much of it as we can because we think it is important.
    Ideally, we’d have a strong group of local supporters who would help us fund a city government beat for a year and we’d retain a really good reporter and a talented intern; if anyone is interested in talking about this, please get it touch; welcome your ideas and suggestions.

  22. Len Raphael

    What kind of traffic do your budget articles get when there’s not an immediate Council meeting or hot issue like closing libraries?

  23. Susan Mernit

    “What kind of traffic do your budget articles get when there’s not an immediate Council meeting or hot issue like closing libraries?”

    Redistricting has gotten good traffic; budget has gotten some strong traffic–this story–
    was one of our top 3 for the week.

  24. R2D2II

    As I tried to point out there are other ways of looking at how good journalism works to attract readers. Hint: it has something to do with the quality of the journalism and is not dependent on the topic.

  25. Len Raphael

    R2, it’s also a chicken or egg thing. Experienced, talented journalists don’t work for free unless they’re doing it out of passion for a cause or they’re in between jobs.

    Heck, when newspapers like the Wash Post and the NYT’s with world class journalist have financial problems despite high numbers of high income readers, how do you expect local Oakland media to pull that off?

    In some ways it’s harder to be a good local journalist than a national one. Since there aren’t other journalists covering the local topics, you have to do even more research than if it were a national issue. Much of the info comes from cultivating sources and learning the local history. That’s a big part of the reason that the pieces on Oakland North are mostly superficial rehashes of an interview with one or two public officials.

  26. R2D2II

    Len–I think the problem is that Oakland generally sets a very low standard for itself as a community. We accept mediocre journalism and mediocre media which are invariably full of self-congratulation and devoid of leadership. Our politicians are the same.

    Journalists develop experience and talent by doing what they do under the guidance of editors who’ve been there. Same for politicians and all sorts of other civic problem-solvers.

    Echa Schneider did it in Oakland because she had the required reading, writing and critical thinking skills. She got a lot of attention in a couple of years of work.

    Somewhere in media in Oakland has got to take some chances and step out from the crowd. Same with the pols.

  27. R2D2II

    I should point out that the other side of the mediocrity coin in Oakland is the avoidance of risk which pervades much of what passes for commercial or mass culture here. Everyone seems to have the sense that the economy and culture here are limited and that people need always to be in survival mode, protecting whatever niche they think they inhabit.

    The fact is that Oakland is a central part of a very vibrant Bay Area economy. This is clearly to be seen in Oakland’s appreciating housing stock and the growth in the consumer/entertainment industries like restaurants and bars. There’s sufficient regional economic energy for these sub-economies to grow.

    Housing and restaurant/bar enterprises are accustomed to risk and accept it because they recognize the tangible rewards in terms of economic and/or social success. Other kinds of enterprises not quite so much, at least in Oakland.

    If more Oakland media were to understand the nature of risk/reward I think we’d have a much more vital cultural and political scene here.

  28. Len Raphael

    Council Member Schaaf et al,, today is 25 calendar days after submitting request 507 and 515.

    Response to 507 is transparent, even though it means that the City is negotiating multi-million dollar employee contracts without adequate information about what other cities are paying. “Good morning, Mr. Raphael: We have researched your request and were not able to find records that were responsive. We acknowledge that there was such a document produced at one time but a search of our hard copy files and a review of the website archive did not yield the document requested. Thank you. Victoria Chak Personnel Department – Victoria C. Chak”

    But there was no response to my email on Oct 6 2013 about the City’s stonewalling my question about a possible special business tax deal granted to Pandora so they would stay in Oakland:

    ” Attn: Shahla K Azimi
    Department: Budget and Revenue – Revenue Division
    Phone: 510-238-7471

    Please cite the specific sections of the CA Public Records Act upon which you base your determination.

    SF gave the public the full details of its business payroll tax reduction agreement with Facebook.

    Len Raphael

    The open discussion in SF is about a business tax break given to Twitter. No such discussion possible here re anything that might have been given Pandora.


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