Compare the tech community on the East Coast, particularly in New York and Boston, to that of the West Coast, particularly the Bay Area/Silicon Valley, and the differences might not be readily apparent. But look a bit closer and the word “community” seems to hold more significance on the Atlantic side of the U.S.
However, take a closer look at the Bay Area. Compare the ever-booming tech community that calls San Francisco and the Silicon Valley home to the burgeoning Oakland on the other side of the bay, and what we have is a city primed to alter the tech landscape. At least this is what Catherine Bracy thinks.
As the director of community organizing for Code For America, Bracy is responsible for mobilizing international communities of technologists and designers to develop tools that connect citizens with government. And as an Oakland resident, she is uniquely positioned to recognize the differences in the popular tech scene of the Bay Area and what makes Oakland stand out from its much richer neighbors.
“With a lot of startups in Silicon Valley or San Francisco it feels like ‘I’m heads down in my computer and writing code and looking to sell a thing to somebody at some point’ — it’s not rooted in anything,” Bracy said. “I feel like Oakland is a place where you can build much more rooted communities of technologists and entrepreneurs that understand they’re a part of a larger ecosystem.”
From Tech Policy To Obama Tech
After having served as the product manager on President Barack Obama’s campaign tech team in Chicago for eight months, Bracy moved to San Francisco at the beginning of 2012 to head up the campaign’s technology office, which she says was the first of its kind in political history. She was charged with recruiting volunteer technologists to build software.
“There were a lot of people who worked in the technology world that were obviously energized,” Bracy said. “The tools had evolved in such a way that it became possible to do distributed software development. GitHub and Pivotal and agile development methodology generally makes it a lot easier to break up software development tasks into things that volunteers can do in a few hours a week. My job was to figure out how to make that work for the campaign.”
Soon after the campaign ended, Bracy took these same approaches to software development with her to Code for America as its international program director. And she found herself right in the middle of what she considers to be a disengaged tech scene due largely to its ignorance of tech policy. This, she says, is in sharp contrast to her experiences on the East Coast where she served as administrative director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. There she studied the Internet’s impact on democracy, freedom of expression, and how the media landscape is changing journalism.
“Working in the tech policy space I guess I just assumed that people who worked in companies out here were paying attention to the policy issues that were going to affect the future of their industry,” Bracy said. “That turns out to not really have been the case. And even now I sense more of a willingness to disengage even further rather than figure out how to connect with that policy world in a productive way.”
Not only is it this seemingly persistent disconnect from policy that Bracy sees contributing to the negative perceptions of the Bay Area startup scene, but it’s also a perceived lack of community.
“If you look at the startup scene in New York versus the startup scene here, there’s much more of a sense of it being part of a place, a member of the larger community, whereas here technology is the entire community. It is very monolithic. I can’t imagine a company like Kickstarter happening in San Francisco because the culture of the company feels very much rooted in the idea of New York.”
From Obama Tech To Oakland Tech
Take a trip across the bay, though, and things look a lot different. For one, the sense of community is much stronger, said Bracy, who moved to Oakland earlier this year. And she recognizes that this community requires something much more than building technology in a silo.
“I have this theory that the big problem with the tech industry is a lack of self awareness,” she said. “If you come here, you have to understand that your way of life is not the norm and be willing to be open to the community that’s already here and has been here for a long time. In a place like Oakland, which has a tradition of activism, it’s hard to go to those who have been organizing for decades in underserved communities — and haven’t seen government really helping — and say to them, ‘hey, come join this group of mostly privileged, mostly white technology people that are going to build tools that will help your communities.’ That’s a hard sell.”
A hard sell though it may be, efforts are well under way that capitalize on the city’s history of activism to push its tech profile. As a 2013 Code for America city, Oakland hosted a group of fellows from the Code for America fellowship program. This year, the fellows launched a tool called RecordTrac, which Bracy said helps the city facilitate its freedom of information request system.
In addition, the OpenOakland Code for America Brigade is a group of tech-minded volunteers that collaborates regularly with city government officials to develop tools to connect them with Oakland citizens. OpenOakland predates the fellowship program so the group has a strong relationship with the government, Bracy said.
An Energized Community
It’s clear that the energy and the community are already here, but they are currently lacking structure, she says. Volunteer leaders are responsible for executing the strategy for the Oakland Brigade, and Bracy, who runs a global network of these groups, will be working on developing a framework within which these volunteers can begin doing more outreach.
“We need to get these groups in the same room together and to build that trust because I think there are things that both bring to the table,” Bracy said. “We need to figure out how to make the best of both flourish instead of having the worst of both in conflict with each other.”
The Brigade’s plan is to begin actively recruiting people with expertise in areas like public health and criminal justice, as well as local technologists who want to expand the pie and who want to build more innovative tools that serve a wider audience. But you need a table for them to sit at. And once they show up, Bracy said, they have to keep coming.
“You have to prove that the work you’re doing is well meaning and you’re willing to learn and you’re willing to listen, and you’re willing to build stuff that is relevant,” she said. “It’s about building trust more than anything. We’re really committed to doing that work. We can’t build software that is meaningful for cities and communities if we don’t have those people at the table and engaged in the process.”
But Bracy isn’t under any illusion that she alone will write the Oakland Tech Boom Playbook.
“I won’t presume to know what’s going to work,” she continued. “I just started a month ago at this job and I’m working at the international level so I’m thinking about it in the context of the world while living in Oakland. The lessons that I have from organizing on that level, I will obviously be most interested in seeing them come to fruition in Oakland.”