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Oakland App Sheds Light on Campaign Finance

An app called Open Disclosure will automate campaign finance for an upcoming mayoral election.

In the run up to a mayoral election on November 4, Oakland, Calif., will add an extra level of scrutiny to campaign finance.

Steve Spiker, founder of OpenOakland, a civic tech innovation brigade from Code for America, will launch on Sept. 2 a new app and Web tool for residents called Open Disclosure. As its name implies, the app will offer open disclosure to campaign finance information, holding candidates accountable while keeping citizens informed.

The app draws on open data from a number of public sources to display simple analysis of candidates’ financial filings and the identities of major donors. The idea, Spiker said, was to create a nearly automated tool that funnels obscure and complex financial data into easy reading. During the site’s soft launch, it showed data from enterprising campaign drivers like Libby Schaaf, the city’s current District 4 council member, who generated more than $350,000 for her campaign -- the highest so far -- with about 44.5 percent coming from donors outside Oakland.

Right beneath Schaaf, and with the most donations accepted from outside the city is mayoral candidate Bryan Parker, a senior vice president at Texas-based HealthDev, a division of Physicians' Capital Investments, and also a medical real-estate and financial company. Parker accrued more than $277,000 with about 61.6 percent outside Oakland.

The current Mayor Jean Quan ranks third for total donations at just more than $250,000 and with 43.3 percent received from outside donations.

To elaborate on plans for the app and its continued development, Spiker spoke with Government Technology last week as his team hurried to finalize last-minute details.

Govtech: When conceptualizing the app, what was it meant to accomplish?
OpenOakland’s Steve Spiker: What it does is it breaks out all of the campaign finance — all of the money that elected officials are receiving in their campaigns in Oakland elections —  and takes all that raw data and scrapes it into a bunch of usable information. The core of what the site does is it let you see and compare Oakland’s mayoral candidates and lets you compare their fundraising bases. So it will allow you to see who’s raising money from which sources, organizations and individuals. You’ll be able to see the person or organization behind a number of different campaigns. You can see whereabouts in the area the money is coming from. So it allows us to show people  for a particular candidate that they’re actually, for example, receiving most of their campaign funding from outside of the city of Oakland versus inside the city of Oakland. And also, when looking inside of Oakland, which neighborhoods are financially supporting political candidates.

GT: How did the idea for it develop?
Spiker: The idea was posed by someone at a meeting with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and city staff, just talking about various open data projects and needs and their frustrations at not having a good enough Web platform to publish really good and dynamic data information. They were really frustrated about that and we were talking about some alternative approaches and about the election and other angles that would be really interesting -- given data sources that exist but haven’t really been opened up.

Lauren [Angius, program analyst at the city's Public Ethics Commission], threw out the idea that was something like, "How could we build something that would actually show people who are putting all the money into these campaigns and what that looks like at the city level?" It came from there.

GT:  Who are the main users going to be?
Most of our work has journalists as a core audience because they’re the ones who can take this clear information and put it into a more consumable format. So [it targets] journalists, researchers and obviously campaign staff will be interested because it will offer them insights instead of having to pay high-priced analysts to give them some of these things. It will actually give the smaller campaigns access to information they didn’t have before -- which could be an interesting effect -- but we’re definitely making sure it’s fairly straight forward and clearly easy to use because you really want a lot of the voting population to be able to look at this stuff and understand what it could mean for them in who they choose [to vote for].

What APIs or data does it draw from?
They’ve basically taken the Netfile system — which is the state system where all the public records are required to be filed by law — and  taking all of this raw data from that system and refactoring it [reformatting the code to display on site]. Some of the data is also coming from the city’s Socrata system. It’s actually a pretty nice process.

What does this project represent for OpenOakland’s civic ambitions?
I guess there are two main points that are critical for us. One is that it shows the continuing possibilities of what happens when a city opens up and publishes data and when a state does the same. It shows what is the potential when that environment is there. But it also, for us, shows another really good project that has very much been a collaboration between city staff and Open Oakland -- its another really good private-public partnership.

What was the app process like and who participated?

It started about five months back. It was a slow start and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out the data sources -- which weren’t very clear. There was a lot of slow work trying to find out whether this was even viable and what type of data could be there. Almost half the project length was sorting that stuff out. Our core team included Lauren Angius, the city lead, and developers Mike Ubell, Tom Dooner, Elina Rubaliak (a designer), and Klein Lieu, a developer and early catalyst for the project.


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Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.