CfASummit15 reactions

For three years now, I have been involved in OpenOakland, the local Oakland brigade of Code For America (CfA), and I’ve also been aware of some of the activities around the national CfA offices in San Francisco. But this was my first opportunity to be part of a CfA Summit, and it was as good as I had hoped. My favorite part of the summit was hearing all of the diverse local activities going on in various U.S. cities, all brought together by common interests and activities. I was also struck, contrasting this meeting with the science/tech conferences I usually attend, the attendees were some of the most considerate I’ve bumped into: polite in lines, careful with doors, washing their hands in the bathroom. Something about the civic involvement thing maybe actually rubs off!

Right from the beginning, Jennifer Pahlka, reigning queen of CfA, set an inspirational tone by invoking Jake Brewer, a passionate, effective advocate who passed just recently. His mantra “cultivate the Karass” (cf. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) is the first Summit meme I brought with me.

Open Policing Data

My “beat” in OpenOakland has been public access to police crime data, and progress this year has been pretty exciting. This spring President Obama announced his “Task Force on 21st Century Policing.” You maybe heard the parts about changing how easy it is for a police department to get free bazookas and tanks, but another part had to do with a Police Data Initiative. The recommendations of the Task Force make very interesting reading. Mayor Schaaf was there for some of the meetings, and Oakland is to be one of the initial cities involved.

Then, not coincidently (CfA is a key member of the Task Force), the national CfA organization has identified “Safety and Justice” as a central theme for their work this last year, and the topic ran through a number of morning main stage presentations, and even more workshops in the afternoon. Jenny Montoya-Tansey directs the Safety and Justice program for CfA. Her sessions Thursday afternoon brought an amazing line-up of dynamic, well-informed speakers from across the country, including:

  • Lynn Overmann, from the CTO office of the White House

  • Gary Wilson, the sheriff in Denver, CO told an excellent story about how people kept in jails or prisons (these are very different!) fit into a flow of the justice process.

  • Tiffany Andrews and Laura Ellena, CfA fellows this year in Indianapolis, are crowd-sourcing a CfA Police Data Census to compare availability across the country. For example, reports from Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board concerning complaints, and one from Chief Figueroa concerning stop data are recognized. But OPD does not provide data concerning: response time, use of force, officer involved shootings, assaults on officers, citations or pursuits, as other cities are beginning to do.

  • In California, Lenore Anderson from Californians for Safety and Justice described a very exciting project involving the implications of Proposition 47, passed in 2014 to changed certain low-level crimes from potential felonies to misdemeanors. Beyond its role in crimes committed after passage of Prop 47, there may be one million people currently incarcerated to which this felony and misdemeanor reduction might be applied. ChangeMyRecord aims to produce online assistance to help reclassify affected individuals.

  • Nearby in Vallejo, Jazmyn Latimer has documented the amazing story of how one woman, Tina Encarnacion, grew a Neighborhood Watch group in her own neighborhood, to now involve ~250 others across the city. Tina was so successful, the Vallejo Police Department hired her!

My favorite contact was with the OpenJusticeBrokerConsortium. This open source system (the code is on a github repo!) supports data exchanges between various justice organizations. It began in Maine and Vermont, providing a federated query/brokerage relation among all police (and other justice organizations) willing to participate. Because of overlapping needs, Hawaii and now Michigan have since found value in sharing the code base and only making those extensions needed there. The consortium model provides a range of membership levels, allowing a new jurisdiction to get customization for their individual situations at a cost much less than if each jurisdiction were to attempt development on their own. Share source nationally, code locally!

Seattle is one of the leaders in this area of civic innovation, in part due to Mayor Ed Murry’s leadership in the development of privacy guidelines. Michael Mattmiller, CTO for Seattle motivates privacy this way: “Privacy for our data is like brakes on a race car: you should be scared to go fast until you know you can drive safely!” He then layed out their Privacy principles. Ryan Calo, a law professor at University of Washington, is finishing a paper “Push, Pull, and Spill: A Transdisciplinary Case Study in Municipal Open Government” describing issues that have arisen there. Another Seattle advantage is their close relationship with Socrata, the leader in civic data portals. Data.Oakland uses their facility, so Seattle’s data portal is a place to watch.

Ian Mance from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice gave a fascinating account of what might happen elsewhere as traffic stop data becomes available.
It turns out that North Carolina began collecting (vehicle) stop data in 1999, and a remarkable, but nearly unexplored data set has been generated in the 16 years since. Working with Colin Copeland from the Code for Durham Brigade, a new public-facing site is to be released very soon. Already, though, the resource is supporting queries by Southern Coalition for Social Justice and other advocacy groups, criminal defense attorneys, and also police departments. An interesting feature of this data is that, while most users can only see de-identified data and look at patterns, police chiefs have access to the actual identity of the officers involved.

Other things, too

There were of course many other topics beyond policing and crime; to get a sense, checkout a Twitter #cfasummit search. One example was the conversation between Tim O’Reilly and AirBnB co-founder Brian Chesky. Tim has consistently been early on every tech curve of the last 20 years, and infrastructure for the sharing economy is no exception. But while Chesky dropped some nice factoids (52% of AirBnB hosts say they depend on the income to make their rent/mortgage; on a peak night this summer one million people world-wide were staying in an AirBnB) Tim never really pushed him into the real issues, for example why AirBnB — if it is trying so hard to work with civic governments — finds it necessary to spend $8 million in an attempt to defeat San Francisco’s upcoming Proposition F?!

It was a fun, informative three days in the Marriott City Center. And, announced at the end of the meeting, CfA’s 2016 Summit is also going to be in Oakland!? That’s a surprise to me, because I’d expect the vitality we got to witness here could provide a great boost to other active cities, too. I’m sure CfA planners have their reasons, and the other cities’ loss is Oakland’s gain. As soon as I know dates, I’ll be putting the CfA 2016 Summit on my calendar.

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