OpenOakland and the Search for Sustainable Civic Technology
The co-founders of OpenOakland on the challenges of running a civic innovation organization and why nobody has figured out a sustainable nonprofit model—yet.
Last month the co-founders of OpenOakland, a flourishing Code for America brigade and civic tech community, announced that they were stepping down from their positions as “co-captains,” leaving the organization in the care of an executive leadership team.
After running OpenOakland for several years—finding time in their evenings and weekends to organize hacknights and maintain civic apps—Eddie Tejeda and Steven Spiker both felt over-committed, and struggled to maintain a work-life-OpenOakland balance. Over the years, OpenOakland grew, but significant funding never materialized, and the volunteer-led organization became difficult to maintain. Although it’s business-as-usual for now, the leadership team is currently discussing what a future OpenOakland might look like, and whether they should refocus or narrow their objectives in pursuit of sustainability.
Tejeda and Spiker started OpenOakland in 2012, and have been running weekly hacknights and spearheading open government and community technology projects ever since. When they met, Tejeda was a Code for America fellow with experience working at the intersection of old industries—publishing and academia—and new technologies. Spiker was working on research and technology at a social justice nonprofit, and was well-regarded as an Oakland expert, which is why Tejeda says he chose him as a mentor through the Code for America fellowship program.
At the time, Spiker told Civicist, they could see that the city was struggling, in many ways:
We saw that local government was struggling to use technology very well at all, was struggling to consider open source technology, and was struggling with anything around openness and transparency. It was very hard to find any information, it was very hard to access information, and there was lots of really bad trust, or lack of trust.
Spiker and Tejeda knew that there were people in the community invested in the ideals of open government and transparency and interested in helping the city do better, they just needed an outlet for their energies—an outlet like OpenOakland.
The early days were a sort of discovery process as Spiker and Tejeda figured out what OpenOakland was and what its place was in the community. The first few meetings were at Spiker’s office, then at the Oakland Tribune, before landing finally in City Hall.
“We had to figure out exactly how, where we would fit in,” Tejeda told Civicist. “We made a few mistakes early on and we adjusted, and maybe we over adjusted, and over the course of a few years we had folks from the city trust us on projects, but it was never—it was a weird tension where it was never clear where we fit in exactly. So we were always negotiating it, and always having to figure out exactly what we were doing, who were we serving, who was it that we’re ultimately accountable to.”
Tejeda said that parsing crime data is a good example of how OpenOakland tread carefully with city government. “We have to be very careful in terms of what story we think we’re telling with the data,” he said. “And also make sure that if we’re saying something, that the city understands that that’s the real interpretation of what’s going on.”
It would be easier, Tejeda argued, if the organization didn’t have a relationship with the city to preserve: “We could make claims about what we believe and not take the city’s point of view at all,” he said. “And vice versa; if we were part of the city we would have to go through whatever communications department, whatever messaging they want to communicate.”
“We were just in that middle zone,” Tejeda said. “Where sometimes we broke with them and sometimes we worked with them.”
OpenOakland has spearheaded projects like OpenDisclosure, which turns campaign finance filings into easy-to-read and easy-to-search charts and maps, Parklandish, a (currently inactive) tool that helps people find public parking and public restrooms in Oakland, and Open Budget: Oakland, a web app for visualizing the city budget.
The time commitment to keep up with the various projects and weekly hacknights wasn’t enormous—a few hours a day around big events but usually no more than a day’s work over the course of a week—but it took a toll nonetheless.
“Keeping this pace has [been] challenging for me,” Tejeda wrote shortly after the announcement was made last month. “Personally, I found it difficult managing existing projects and relationships while engaging in new ones. For example, I started a company and wanted to make sure I still had time for friends and family, and suddenly I was not keeping up the way I wanted to.”
Spiker was even more explicit, putting “burnout in #civictech” in the title of his blog post.
“…We’re at a point where we both need space in our lives that isn’t possible with paying jobs and leading a civic organization,” Spiker wrote. “Not anymore at least.”
I’ve balanced my family (three little girls), my marriage and my love for Oakland and for what we’ve made through OpenOakland, but it’s become harder to put in the time needed to really grown and develop and organization at this phase…I’m aware that I’ve sacrificed much but I’ve loved doing so. But I need space for myself, space to get physically fit again, space to enjoy being a dad and not compromising weekends with my kids for retreats or hack days, and space to enjoy being a husband and not having “all those evening events”.
At this point, Spiker touches on another challenge that OpenOakland and other nonprofit civic tech organizations face: a lack of fiscal support. Spiker wrote that he and his wife had agreed that he would step back on several occasions if “it wasn’t clear there was a fundable role to take on.”
He admits that several of those agreed-to dates had already passed before he finally stepped down.
The challenge to find financial support for OpenOakland was two-fold: a general shortage of funding for nonprofit civic organizations, especially general operating budgets (as opposed to specific projects); and too many strings attached to the opportunities that did present themselves.
Making OpenOakland a more formal, established organization would require, Tejeda said, “very patient capital.”
“We found it very difficult to find money that fit where we wanted to go and what we wanted to be,” Spiker told Civicist.
According to Spiker, the only “significant funding” that ever materialized had too many conditions attached, and Spiker and Tejeda turned it down. Spiker said it might have been right for an organization that had already been around for five years, but that it wasn’t a good fit for a brand-new organization.
“We didn’t want to be compromised,” Tejeda said. “We didn’t want to just take in money just because the money was there, and then suddenly we would have expectations that were outside of what it is that we believed was the most important.”
OpenOakland did accept small sums from the Kapor Foundation and Code for America for specific events like hackathons or CityCamps, but they never covered much more than the cost of running the event.
“In a lot of ways I can’t believe we’ve been able to do it for so long and produced so much because we [Spiker and I] haven’t taken any money at all,” Tejeda said.
“There isn’t anyone that’s figured this out yet,” Spiker told Civicist. “Like, this particular type of organization—that we can tell—doesn’t exist anywhere in the U.S. that’s been funded effectively and has any staff, anywhere. There are organizations that are starting to get small grants here and there, or small projects, but by and large they’re tiny and there’s no one that’s actually figured out what the model is.”
“We’re not organizing, we’re not activism, but we’re also not VC funded tech,” he added. “We exist in a weird middle space. We’re in some ways a new civic institution, but those are hard to fund also.”
The funding conundrum puts OpenOakland at a crossroads, where they can either work to take OpenOakland “to the next level,” as Spiker put it, or to devolve the organization to a community-led board made up of the leadership team.
“[We’re currently] considering what is it that we actually do well and should do,” Spiker said. “We traditionally do all these things—we do events and apps and advocacy and community building—but what of those things do we do really well and what are those things should we actually focus on in a more manageable environment.”
It seems this soul-searching will likely result in a pared-down OpenOakland.
“We don’t know exactly how that’s going to play out,” Spiker said. “But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the tech fell out of that and it became more open government advocacy, and technology advocacy, and privacy and surveillance related and a whole lot of community-building and events stuff, and no building apps. That’s one eventuality that could come out of it, or it could be that something else changes.”
In the next few weeks and months, as the new leadership of OpenOakland tries to crack the nut that has yet to be cracked, dozens of Code for America brigades and other civic hacking communities around the country will surely be watching closely.