To watch Jess Sand lead a meeting of developers and others building an air-quality related app is to see a snapshot of the civic tech movement today.
Civic tech projects start out looking like it’s all about technology. But the more you look, the more you see that “civic” — meaning the development team, the people who’ll use their app, and anyone who might someday find value in their work — swings way more weight than “tech” ever will.
The project has been in the works for a few years already, and this team is at least its second generation to take it on. A question came up at the meeting I attended about what to do with the project archives. The group signaled thumbs down, and Sand announced the verdict: “Nuke the archives.”
The core team consists of six members: three developers, a user interface designer and researcher, and Sand, project lead and content strategist. All but Sand and one other member are male, all but one are white, and none appear older than about 40. Still other members contribute critical elements remotely.
With the app, agencies and the public will evaluate air quality based on data, not subjective measures like smell or haze. Community empowerment and personal well being are at stake. A mother might wonder whether to let her kid play outside. A community leader might want to know the source of bad air. There’s also the big decision: whether to live there or not.
Complexity and evolution of project
Nuking the archives was easy compared with what Sand calls “a spaghetti soup of challenges.” The spaghetti metaphor usually conjures technology, but that’s not what she’s thinking[ What are some of the design choices based on the who question?].
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is who the people of West Oakland actually are? The demographics have been changing rapidly over the last 10 or 20 years.
West Oakland used to be the home to black railroad workers, including a large contingent of relatively prosperous, self-educated Pullman porters. Jazz clubs featured famous musicians. Since the 1940s, the neighborhood has stood downwind of the MacArthur Maze, a massive tangle of intersecting freeways linking most major Bay Area cities. Then came neighborhood-deadening “urban renewal,” the decline of railroad passenger travel, and infrastructure like the Nimitz Freeway.
More recently, gentrification has brought a new dilemma for the established groups, a diverse mix. Many are what some well-off residents who look down from the nearby Oakland hills imagine: minorities, seniors, the young. Not so visible from the hills is the neighborhood’s rich multitude of roles, such as school teachers, parents, community volunteers, students, and artists.
That diversity finds a rough mirror in the agency whose work WOAQ’s agenda fits into.
That diversity finds a rough analogy in the work of WOAQ’s partner, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. They’re doing so much critical, high profile work and juggling so many stakeholders that it can be hard for WOAQ to find time on its calendar. “We’ve had a lot of conversations with them about how our work might fit into their context,” Sand says. “Figuring out how we fit is definitely a challenge.”
Sand has spent much of her past year on building her relationship with that project, not on building technology. “One of the biggest challenges of this kind of project is relationship and trust building,” she says.
“We all say we want to make government more accessible to ‘the people,'” she says, “Well, who are the people? Community, you know, can be defined in so many ways.”
The question keeps returning: Who are “the people”? Besides residents, major stakeholders include business owners, enforcement agencies, and of course Environmental Indicators Project’s funders. Each will use the data differently. Neighborhood activists, for example, have far more use for data visualization than for hands-on data prep. On the other hand, local enforcement agencies might value data prep.
One group of stakeholders common among every civic tech project is government agencies. Most work with an infrastructure that’s outdated and broken and hampered by budgets and inertia. Also, their in-house knowledge of technology is usually inadequate to meet demands by the public.
Reception to civic tech groups by public agencies varies a lot. “Some say don’t come near me, you don’t know what we do,” says Sand. “And some are desperate for tech help. Lot of agencies do welcome it. ”
There’s lots of reinventing the wheel, lots of silos in data and technology. One agency might use a CMS (content management system) while another might use paper entirely, both in the same department. Both may neglect to share data with each other.
Move slowly, build things
“I’ve worked very hard to organize the project so people can come in and out at whatever level they need to,” she says. One change, introduced by team member Ife Ajiboye and blessed by the group, has been to refactor the tech stack to let developers just pick up and contribute. Before, they need a lot of knowledge and context.
She, like most other brigade project managers, has struggled with this, she says. But a dedicated and patient team has now coalesced, which Sand attributes to the value of the work.
“It’s baby steps,” she says.