Oakland residents and City staff participated in the annual National Day of Civic Hacking [NDOCH]  on May 31st with an update to the on-going Oakland Answers project.  In total, 108 additional answers were added to the data base, and many conversations took place that lay the ground work for more collaboration between the City of Oakland, OpenOakland,  and Oakland residents on the use of technology in government.

Beside the expansion of the Answers database, many informal conversations took place between City staff, Open Data advocates and community activists which may lead to new, on-going projects.


CIO Bryan Sastokas, an activist, and IT Director Ashan Baig in conversation.

“The amount of collaboration that occurred today was impressive,”  said Bryan Sastokas, the City’s recently recruited Chief Information Officer.” One of my goals is to identify the need for information sharing before, during and after a disaster.  I had a terrific session with City IT Director  Ahsan Baig, Chris Peeples from AC Transit and David Guarino of Code for America.  I look forward to our follow up to have these ideas take root as I believe they could have an invaluable impact to the Oakland community.”  That extended conversation touched on issues of digital enfranchisement, the resiliency of city and county services and infrastructure and the ability of different services and governments to share info.

Sastokas added, “For me, the National Day of Civic Hacking is about engaging the community to see what local organizations need done.  Today the focus was on Oakland Answers and by pulling in the community with City Staff some great ideas were very well received.  I’m glad to see more focus on disaster information such as Volunteer and Shelter Locations, Mandatory Evacuation Locations, and [dealing with] brush fires…. The common challenges that were discussed involved ways of using real time data to match up needs and services.”

DSC09100That view was shared by Mai-ling Garcia, the City’s Online Engagement Manager. “I’m excited to see my colleagues engaging with the community and identifying areas of mutual interest after talking things out.  This is where innovation happens”, Garcia said. “We’re also  inspired by the ongoing work of the civic hacking community and Open Oakland and honored to sponsor the National Day of Civic Hacking.”  This hacking day, actually a weekend of activities held in 103 US cities, was started by Code for America last year to bring together citizens and developers to improve their communities and the governments that serve them.


The Oakland Answers update was held at the new Impact Hub Oakland space on Broadway.  With its movable tables and chairs, and skylights, Impact Hub provided a good working space that could be quickly reconfigured for different working groups.  Rental of the space increase significantly from last year and OpenOakland, the organizers of the event, sought sponsorships from Oakland businesses and some elected officials.

Oakland’s own ASK.com was the event’s major sponsor.  They said they saw the Oakland Answers project as a community-based extension of their own mission — which is to provide curated answers to public questions.  To support this mission, Ask purchased About.com in 2012 to increase their collection of curated content. Ask.com now employs 235 people and they are looking for another 20 plus employees.

Before the Oakland NDOCH event, Oakland Local spoke with Doug Leeds, the CEO of Ask.com, about their sponsorship of Oakland Answers. Leeds said that Ask.com helps people find meaningful answers,  “People come to the Internet looking for answers to their questions. They want information in a straight-forward manner,” Leed explained.  As company Ask.com is about giving people access to info… so this is certainly something we support.  ”  

Leed told Oakland Local that Ask.com partners with the regional park district on an annual fishing derby at Lake Temescal for kids with special needs.  Ask also supports the work of Oakland Digital Arts and Literacy Center (ODALC) and helps out at the Oakland Zoo.

The Kapor Center for Social Impact, Mayor Jean Quan, and Councilmember Libby Schaff were additional sponsors and the City of Oakland made in-kind contributions.

DSC09097Two Ask.com employees worked on answers throughout the day, including Chuck Smith, a Knowledge Engineer at Ask and a resident of the Temescal. ASK is  in the business of building answers.  We collect and curate data and put a really polished human touch on answer content, ” Smith explained. “When I heard about this, I said ‘that’s what I do’.”

At the Write-a-thon, Smith worked on questions about parking.  “A year ago I tried to find out about parking holidays, and its very hard to find that info on the City’s web site. It was whether or not I had to move my car on Memorial Day, and that turned out to be one of the parking holidays.”

“I was really excited to learn that we were sponsoring it  because its a great service for your friends and neighbors.”  Smith added, “I know we are definitively looking to partnering with organizations like this going forward.”

Among the volunteer writers at the Answers event were friends who found themselves working together for the day to find camp and other recreational options for Oakland youth.  These were Sharon Bass and Dale McGrew, who have a family connection.  Bass said “This day has been mega fun!”

About 80 people participated, almost all Oakland residents.   Some indicated they would like to continue working on the project. All together, 108 question and answer pairs were submitted.

A small cadre of code hackers worked to upgrade features of the Answers web site and another larger group of coders worked on the Ohana 311 Open Referral project,  Part of the 311 group later worked with the San Francisco brigade of Code for America in their weekend long National Day of Civic Hacking and eventually won First Place honors there.  The Open Referral project is supported by Open Oakland and other Code for America brigades.

Members of Open Oakland organized the event and provided tech support.   Attendees were encouraged to come to the weekly Open Oakland meetings at City Hall on Tuesday evenings at 6:30 pm.

The full on-line album of photos from Oakland Answers is HERE.  Below is a selection of those images.