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Civic Hacking Our Way to a Better Government and Stronger Democracy

Steve Spiker is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good

Steve Spiker

Steve Spiker is being honored as a Champion of Change  for applying his tech skills for civic good.

I’m an immigrant. I may not look like it, but I came to the USA for love and I’ve grown to seriously love this country in spite of its flaws. I’ve been blessed to work for a social justice organization (Urban Strategies Council) in Oakland, California, and have loved serving the city and its residents.  I’ve devoted myself to helping make data-driven decisions a reality but have realized the parallel need for more civic engagement on behalf of our city and our residents. I’m also a tech geek and have benefited from proximity to the amazing people of the Bay Area tech community.

Despite all the great efforts of many community-based organizations and government agencies, we haven’t made much of a dent in poverty and inequity in the Bay Area. My reaction to this failure is that we must do things differently and do them better if we want to see social change. A big piece of this change is that our cities must become more open, more engaged, and more agile.  At the core of so much failure is the way we strategically use (or don’t use) data and technology in local government.

Being part of the civic innovation community has been an amazing and humbling experience. It has taught me that there are always others with ideas as good, or better, than my own. The diverse members of OpenOakland, our volunteer organization that I co-founded with Eddie Tejeda in 2012, represent a broad group of technologists, activists, researchers, designers, and residents who believe that our city can and must be better. We’re working to build better interfaces to government that make interaction with government simple and painless. We’re leading the way with effective public-private partnerships and with collaborations that gently move our government to a more accessible, more agile, future.

Great work has been done in other cities to make governments more open and  effective and I’ve shamelessly sought to bring those great practices home to Oakland. I’m not the most creative person in the world. I’ve been called an innovator but really I just find great solutions that others have invented and apply them to our local problems. This is the heart of civic hacking for me: building new solutions and processes to replace broken ones, sharing our lessons and our successes and allowing others to benefit from our knowledge, failures, and shared technology. The way open-source technology is created lends itself incredibly well to the way we recreate our cities — openly, collaboratively, and for the good of all.

Through OpenOakland we’ve begun work reshaping civic engagement through our CityCamp Oakland and supported civic hacking efforts with our Open Data Day and Code for Oakland Hackathons. More recently we held an incredible collaborative event called ReWrite Oakland as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking where over 70 people worked together to build something new and creative for our city.  In one day our community and the city together built a system called Oakland Answers- a new way of helping residents find the information they want. The system, built on open source technology first developed in Honolulu, gives people a Google style search interface that helps them find simply written content fast and painlessly.

I’m proud to be part of the Code For America family and to have such a strong network of leaders and doers across the country who are working to transform government to be truly by the people, for the people. We need to restore trust in government and respect for public service — to create a strong platform on which to build our future. I think we’re slowly moving the needle on this in Oakland.

Steve Spiker is the Director of Research & Technology at the Urban Strategies Council