Oakland unveiled the fruits of being a Code for America fellowship city yesterday with a new open data application called RecordTrac that let’s the public easily search city records, file freedom of information requests and do data queries.
The new app handles the huge volume of record requests that City staff gets with an efficient, web-based query system that should free up city staff time and add transparency to city processes, officials said Tuesday at a launching event.
It was built by three coders, Sheila Dugan, Richa Agarwal and Cris Cristina, who are Code for America fellows appointed to work with Oakland after this city was selected last winter as one of 10 Code for America Fellowship cities. The coders said the tool even responds to requests mistakenly sent to the city instead of the county by directing users to the correct URL.
Within 24 hours of the public launch, 40 requests were filed in addition to the 466 requests that were made through a soft launch within City Hall.
In a city with an active hacking community, including a group called OpenOakland that’s working on its own ideas to improve city services, Oakland and Code for America officials said this is the right application for Oakland because it will assist in that collaboration and answer calls for more transparency in government. That is even as other Code for America cities work on such issues as crime and food assistance, issues important to Oakland as well.
“I think it is exactly the right app for Oakland because there was a lot of tension around public records,” said Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka.
She and city officials said problems with the previous system resulted more from a former cumbersome data system rather than a desire on the part of the city to keep records private. “When we saw that city workers were trying so hard to answer,” residents’ requests “and yet the systems got in the way,” so they realized a new data app could serve a lot of purposes. Pahlka, an Oakland resident involved in the early civic hacking events here, said RecordTrac app could repair citizens’ relationship with the city around compliance with records requests.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and City Attorney Barbara Parker said the city’s goals have included increasing efficiency and becoming more transparent and RecordTrac does both.
The Web-based system has three main menu items: a searchable archive of requests made to the city, an easy template for making a new request, and a way to track the progress of your request.
Dugan, one of the fellows, said the three of them interviewed employees in every city department, “from the fire department to IT,” before concluding that a public records request app was the thing to work on. She said it will improve work flow systems within city departments in addition to adding more transparency for residents.
Cristina said they replaced what had been “a complex system that was difficult to use” with a simple and elegant system that “was built from the ground up around users.”
Other Code for America cities include San Francisco, whose fellows are working on a food stamp enrollment application, and New York, whose fellows are working on a criminal justice application.
Many Oakland residents have gotten involved in grassroots coding efforts and hackathons, much of which has now coalesced in OpenOakland, founded by Steve Spiker, an Oakland resident and Urban Strategies employee who this summer was named a White House Champion of Change for his work on creating OpenOakland and spurring collaboration between residents and their local government. Spiker tweeted a “congratulations” about RecordTrac on Twitter shortly after the application was announced.
Pahlka, too, is an Oakland resident as well as a nationally honored technologist. She is actually currently on leave from Code for America while she serves as a White House deputy director of technology for one year.
That both are Oakland residents is testament to the technology savvy here.
Mayor Quan bragged that “the founder of Code for America lives in Oakland” in describing the tech-savvy citizenry of this city and said Oakland was lucky to get fellows from the organization known as “the Peace Corps for geeks.”
The City of Oakland has collaborated in these efforts not only in seeking to become a Code for America fellowship city but also in creating an open data website called data.oaklandnet.com last January and earlier a community engagement website called EngageOakland.com. More recently, as part of its collaboration with Code for America it created answers.oaklandnet.com which is a web site for citizens to ask questions of the city.