A leading Oakland activist and urban planner, Steve “Spike” Spiker was one of 15 “Champions of Change” recently honored in D. C. for helping to re-invent government and its relation to citizens. Spike remains focused on the issues facing Oakland’s low-income communities, and on helping to innovate City government through the band of civic hackers he helped form, OpenOakland.org.
Late on a recent morning, I visited Spike’s office in the Urban Strategies Council (USC) at 17th and Broadway. The fog was parting and sunlight was drifting in and puddling up on the floor at the foot of his desk. On the wall were cards from recent concerts and spreadsheets of demographic data. On the opposite wall hung a grid of framed photos from his efforts to establish himself as a landscape photographer: Stealing Beauty Photos. A brooding photo of cliff and cloud peered down from the wall above his dual computer screens.
His USC office is perched between City Hall and Oakland’s burgeoning Uptown area. That’s a good place for a committed urban activist to be: near the new businesses that are fueling Oakland’s revival, and nearer to the City and County partners of USC’s efforts to spread the revival west and southeast, making Oakland a better place to live and work.
“I used to resist being called a geek. I’m comfortable with the title now, but I still resist ‘nerd.'” He explains that “geek” now has more of a hip and edgy cache.
The Big Bang Theory is one of his regular TV shows, along with The Wire and House on DVD. Spike admits to watching a lot of the older Dr. Who series as a kid in the 80’s as well.
Originally from central Australia, near Ayers Rock, Spike did IT work for Guinness near London before moving to the U.S. The dark and full-bodied brew is still his favorite.
He became involved in the issues and concerns of the Aboriginal community in Australia at an early age, and those experiences helped shape his understanding of community conflict and justice issues, which are much the same in Oakland and other major cities, Spike explained.
“I grew up with Aboriginal kids as friends and hung out in their communities and saw a lot of issues.” he said. “When I was in my 20s and later, I started putting things in context and understood the things I saw came from the systemic racism and long-term abuse of power. Later, when I got involved in public health, it became very obvious what these systemic things resulted in for these struggling communities.”
Spike moved to Oakland in 2006 with his new American wife and he began to work in Oakland, on Oakland issues. But when he later moved to Richmond, both his work and his heart stayed in Oakland. “I got involved in community organizing, and nonprofit and government sector work … and there seemed to be a lot that needed to get done and so much that wasn’t working. … It just became a passion for me.”
At USC, Spike uses mapping and data analytic tools to find problem areas and demographic correlations. “Maps are a way of telling stories about the data … When you look at gun violence and you look at birth defects and other negative issues, you see the same pattern again and again.”
Discussing Oakland’s city government, Spike explained, “Besides the people you have, the most important asset is the data you have, and we’re not using it. We’ve never committed to using this data to improve our services, for finding fraud, for families that have multiple service needs, for doing better case management … we’re just not using the data strategically. We’re not using it for action.”
Spike says he’s proud of being one of the selected White House “Champions of Change” and also of his hacker and activist group, OpenOakland, for being selected as the most innovative activist group by the East Bay Express in their “Best of the East Bay” issue.
Describing his trip to the White House, Spike said, “It was pretty exciting to be there. It was humbling to see the things all those other folks were doing, and they are really impressive.”
Spike praised the New Orleans program “Stop the Beef,” which uses a form of social media to reduce homicides. “It was a very strong concept that links technology interfaces with the on-the-ground intervention work. In Oakland, we often do things sort of low-tech … so it seems this strong model [from New Orleans] is useful here, where several organizations do that kind of thing on the ground, but are definitely not coordinating and not using online communications interfaces. So this would be like Cease Fire or PeaceMakers, with a high-tech component to make things faster and smoother.”
“The New Orleans program supports field workers by tracking histories and relationships of individuals at risk,” Spike added. “It’s a little like automating what Cease Fire tries to do.”
Eddie Tejeda, Spike’s co-founder of Open Oakland and a former Code for America Fellow, describes his collaboration with Spike this way: “I first met Spike in 2011… when I wanted to learn more about Oakland. During my fellowship in 2012, we got to know each other more. As part of the fellowship program, you can pick a mentor and I picked Spike.”
Following the success of the 2012 Code for Oakland event, Tejeda explained, “Spike was looking to organize follow-up events to Code for Oakland, such as a CityCamp, and it slowly came together. Later, in 2012, Code for America supported the creation of city “brigades” and OpenOakland followed from there.”
Adam Stiles, who co-developed the Open City Budget application with OpenOakland, describes Spike this way: “There are very few people able to bridge the very different worlds of City Hall, civic hackers, and community groups. Spike crosses all of these sectors, which is why an organization like OpenOakland is possible.”
According to Nicole Neditch, the Online Engagement Manager at City of Oakland, who regularly works with OpenOakland activists, “Spike has played a pivotal role in catalyzing the City’s civic hacker community. … He has been instrumental in helping the City understand the need for open data, the benefits of open source technology, and the important role that the community can play. The City of Oakland is fortunate to have dedicated and innovative community partners like Spike.” Neditch added, “The purpose of OpenOakland is to … help drive the mission of building a government that works by the people, for the people, in the 21st century.”
City Councilmember Libby Schaaf recounts working with Spike to draft the first Open Data policy for Oakland. “His mind moves at the speed of fiber. He has both vision and the grit to actually accomplish his ambitious ideas. Oakland has a more robust democracy because of Spike, no question.”
This comes from someone whose first job was being a cowboy herding cattle on an Australian ranch, and who is now a U.S. citizen and a nationally-recognized advocate of open government. But he does have a retirement plan: to build up his fine art and landscape photography business while still working as an activist with nonprofit and community organizations.
“There is so much potential here in Oakland and so much struggle,” he said in conclusion.
Rounding out the picture of his open government collaborator, Tejeda said, “Spike is a great cook, and I always appreciate how much he seems to enjoy cooking for friends.”
Find the full slide show here.