Next American Vanguard, the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders, will kick off on Thursday in St. Louis, Mo. In anticipation of the two-day event, NAC will run Q&A interview profiles with several members of this year’s Vanguard class. To read about past Vanguard members, click here.
Urban Strategies Council, Director of Research and Technology
Stephen Spiker is a data junkie, geospatial addict and social researcher with a passion for improving government and our society through open, efficient, engaged governments. For the past two years, he has mentored fellows at Code for America. Recently, he has taken on the role of brigade captain for the new start-up OpenOakland, a volunteer group of hackers, software engineers and civic advocates who build open source technology to tackle civic issues that government doesn’t have the resources to undertake. Spiker loves data, democracy and design. Oh, and he’s a new dad, too.
Next American City: You say that you have been working with OpenOakland to open up government data, and are now seeing some success in the City of Oakland and Alameda County. What kind of progress have you made?
Steven Spiker: Through earlier work with Urban Strategies and now also with OpenOakland, we have helped Alameda County adopt an open data platform. In Oakland I helped the city to draft a policy and guidelines, and worked with city officials to get a resolutions passed authorizing the city of contract for an open data platform. OpenOakland has offered to let the city use a public data catalog I helped to build as their platform — a groundbreaking partnership if adopted.
While we have seen restaurant inspection data, geographic data, solar energy generation statistics and local service facilities data released in both cities, we have been working on getting foreclosure, vacant and blighted land and housing data published. I’m excited about this progress as it allows our cities a powerful way to engage deeply with the technology community and to support economic development and civic innovations.
NAC: Since you are working to enhance data sharing and communication within urban areas, do you think you are increasing the potential for agglomeration effects?
Spiker: There is enormous potential for agglomeration effects through opening local government data. Cities and counties are able to look objectively at real data holdings — something we see as a positive, constructive process and not a critical one. It creates an opportunity for comparing standards to those used elsewhere, often spurring an interest to develop joint standards for data across regions.
This is already happening in major cities that have opened data to the public: When more structured, reliable data standards are publicly available, regional systems can benefit from this data, leading to leading to powerful innovation and increased efficiency. Urban issues are complex and do not exist in isolation. When researchers, community developers, policy makers and software engineers can connect data across cities boundaries, the scaleable benefits can be enormous.
NAC: What is your relationship with the private sector?
Spiker: At OpenOakland we are reaching out to the local private tech sector and mainstream businesses to connect them with our work and engage them in the opportunities possible with a more open, engaged government.
NAC: A salient issue for cities, and especially shrinking cities, is maintaining current data on vacant lots. Have you worked with technology to help cities keep tabs on vacant in order to facilitate redevelopment and revitalization efforts?
Spiker: Yes! We have used a mix of enterprise GIS software and open source smart phone tools to collect property data. When city budgets are tight, using tools that allow residents to report and update conditions is a smart approach. We’d love to see cities go in this direction, which offers significant efficiency gains and decreases spending on technology infrastructure. This type of data sharing has already been implemented in places like Detroit. In that case Code for America is using the LocalData app to manage their place-based data.
NAC: How do you envision your work having an effect on planning?
Spiker: I see it as serving as a channel for community engagement — providing a way to better engage broad audiences and enabling smarter discussion informed by reliable data. When public data is visible and communicated in clear, effective ways, the discussion and resulting use of this data is much richer. Instead of a closed government that merely listens at town hall meetings, I think that releasing data and using web-based tools will contribute to more collaborative and equitable planning.
NAC: What excites you most about the work you do?
Spiker: In my work, such as on the Urban Strategies Council, I get to connect people to data, tools and to solutions: this is a real buzz for me. This is far more satisfying and scalable to me, than simply being an expert. I love being able to work with teams and agencies as a thought partner, sharing knowledge and tools and to seeing the real impact they have.