Code for San Jose Converts Raw Data into Civic-Driven Missions

Michelle Thong, stationed behind a Macbook plastered with a whimsical whale sticker, surveys the eclectic clutch of volunteers perched on swivel-seats at a narrow conference table in one of San Jose’s warmly lit co-working spaces. “Lots of new faces today,” she chirps. “That’s good—that means more ideas to go around.”

In addition to working as a business officer for San Jose’s Office of Economic Development, Thong is co-founder of Code for San Jose, a collective of civic-minded hackers, computer programmers, user experience analysts, a librarian, coders, engineers, a self-described “social media gnome,” various public sector employees, a marketing rep for eBay and someone who trains astronauts for NASA.

Over slices from Pizza My Heart, they chat about how to carve something meaningful out of the mountains of inchoate data available from public agencies. Mike Brown, who moved from Denver to San Jose to take a job with the city managing its geographic information systems—maps of sewers, streets, zoning parcels, the like—suggests a web platform to help cell phone-equipped homeless people find open shelter beds and charitable services.

Across the table, Daniel McCue tweaks a website that allows bicyclists to look up and report road hazards. A brainchild of fellow brigade member Zhila Emadi, the Cycle Safe Project is meant to appeal to the South Bay’s booming cycling scene.

“I’ve been plugging away at it whenever I have time,” McCue says, taking a break from shaping prevenient code into something more functional.

Emily Ramos, who manages social media for the Tech Museum of Innovation, has fine-tuned a website that makes it easier to track money in the San Jose mayor’s race. A sleek beta version shows that, leading up to the June primary election, Supervisor Dave Cortese culled 48 percent of his monetary support from outside San Jose. Councilman Sam Liccardo, 55 percent.

“We really want to gear this up for the election,” says Ramos, a Code for San Jose regular. “The information is already there, it’s just we laid it out in a way that’s simpler to digest.”

“Whatever you want to explore, that’s what you’ll work on,” Thong says, citing examples of what designers, data geeks, policy wonks and coders dreamt up in other communities. “This is a ‘bottom-up’ organization—we’re a platform for citizens.”

Six months ago, Thong teamed up with Kalen Gallagher, a startup entrepreneur by day and Campbell Union High School trustee by night, to form Code for San Jose.

“I wanted to do something that was related to my interest in environmental and social challenges,” she says. “Being involved with Code for San Jose became an interesting marriage for me of what I do now in local government and what I used to do in the technology sector.”

The group meets every other Thursday and is one of scores of brigades, as members call them, spun off from Code for America, a national nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to “harness technology to solve community problems.”

Code for San Jose meets every other Thursday.

Code for San Jose meets every other Thursday.

In San Francisco, when a third of food stamp recipients were unnecessarily cut from benefits, Code for America created an app called Promptly, which sends text alerts to keep the needy enrolled in public assistance. In Oakland, volunteers developed a participatory budgeting app to make it easier for citizens to influence the municipal budget. Hundreds of residents also came together to redesign the city website in a single day.

Palo Alto joined a dozen other cities across the country in 2012 to create an open data portal. The city stocked it full of demographics, tree locations, park maps, bicycle paths, trails, creek water levels, rainfall and utility data. In addition to uploading budget documents, Palo Alto formats them into an “open budget,” reworking line items into colorful interactive graphs. There’s also a  section on the portal home page for residents to suggest new data sets to upload.

Everything created by brigades is open source, shared freely among communities. Newcomer cities like San Jose aren’t starting from scratch.

“I think there’s a lot of talent in this city,” adds Gallagher, who in black-framed glasses, dark-wash Levi’s, tweed Van’s and a T-shirt looks every bit the teacher-turned-techie. “I grew up here, worked here, taught school here and, after getting elected, saw firsthand how government works.”

Which is to say, not efficiently enough.

The data is there—homelessness, dropout rates, demographics, income levels—data that, depending on how it’s used, Gallagher suggests, “can free our community.”

After years of lobbying by nonprofits, journalists and technologists, government at virtually every level is promoting open data, galvanized by the idea that information belongs as much to the public as a road or a park. But the sea change doesn’t necessarily portend a future free from government waste, warns David Eaves, an open innovation authority.

“As accessibility becomes less politicized, how governments collect data will become the new political battlefield,” Eaves wrote in 2012. The U.S. Census, he points out, stirred up contention over what questions were asked, how they were asked and what was done with the information. The stakes are high—congressional representation and hundreds of billions in federal fund allocations—but the numbers are rife with inaccuracies. Immigrant populations are often under-counted. In 1990, the census errantly totaled an extra 4 million white people.

Another source of controversy could be law enforcement stats. In San Jose, the number of citizen complaints against officers has been an open book. But while community complaints against officers have become more frequent, the San Jose Police Department dismisses virtually every one of them. The data shows that citizen complaints against cops in 2013 reached their highest point in four years, yet the department conducted 83 percent fewer internal investigations into officer misconduct. What the data doesn’t show is the cause for the dramatic drop. Are cops better behaved, understaffed or are they more inclined to look the other way if a colleague screws up?

Thong would rather not speculate, saying she wants group members to decide which topics to tackle. “The movement really is in its early stages,” she says. “We’re still working the basics and trying to get this group off the ground.”

President Obama launched a federal open data portal in 2009, but it took several years before other Bay Area municipalities localized the idea.

San Jose rolled out an open data initiative in 2013, starting with permit-tracking software to give applicants a better idea of their project’s progress and keep city staff accountable. Later, it created a website to host demographics, graffiti stats, budget documents and other information. Palo Alto cobbled together its open data hub around the same time, teaming up with Stanford students for its first 24-hour hackathon challenge: coding an app using geographical data provided by the city.

“This is the next evolution of sunshine,” says Cody Kraatz, Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA) social media administrator.

In March, VTA posted an online survey asking the public what data to prioritize. A few topics emerged above the rest: real-time locations of all vehicles, ridership numbers and geo-coordinates of all stations.

“What is new is putting it in a more readable format,” Kraatz says. “That helps us internally as well by putting a fresh set of eyes on the data. We don’t know what people will do with all this information, but that’s kind of the point.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

14 Comments

  1. > Michelle Thong, stationed behind a Macbook plastered with a whimsical whale sticker, surveys the eclectic clutch of volunteers perched on swivel-seats at a narrow conference table in one of San Jose’s warmly lit co-working spaces.

    Too many adjectives.

    Way too many adjectives.

  2. > In San Francisco, when a third of food stamp recipients were unnecessarily cut from benefits, Code for America created an app called Promptly, which sends text alerts to keep the needy enrolled in public assistance.

    NO! NO! NO!

    YOU WROTE THE WRONG CODE, DUMBELL!

    The government has armies of bureaucrats and social workers trying to shove food stamps and welfare benefits on people and get them on the benefits gravy train.

    The REAL NEED is to discover those people receiving benefits who DON’T need or qualify for the benefits.

  3. I met these folks once.

    Had to meet a friend who works with them. I guess it was at the end of their pow wow. I asked 3 or 4 times, “What are you guys working on?” and basically got no response from anyone in the room. Sort of that same feeling you get trying to talk up some girl at a bar, who just swivels on their chair away from you.

    Don’t care though, I have a day job.

    • > I asked 3 or 4 times, “What are you guys working on?” and basically got no response from anyone in the room.

      No doubt, the proverbial “deer in the headlights” look.

      There’s always a moment of doubt when you explain something to a really clueless person and they don’t get it:

      “Is it me or is it them?”

      Rest assured. It’s them.

      > Don’t care though, I have a day job.

      Very wise.

  4. I am sure the homeless will check their iPhone 5’s and Samsung Galaxy 5’s for the newest app. And I am relatively positive that there is NO WAY the information and data mined from this group can be skewed in any way, or sold to the highest bidder with the numbers and information in their favor…..that would be unethical…….but then again, when has that ever stopped anyone from mining skewed data? (Can you say IBM study?)

  5. – “But while community complaints against officers have become more frequent, the San Jose Police Department dismisses virtually every one of them. The data shows that citizen complaints against cops in 2013 reached their highest point in four years, yet the department conducted 83 percent fewer internal investigations into officer misconduct. What the data doesn’t show is the cause for the dramatic drop. Are cops better behaved, understaffed or are they more inclined to look the other way if a colleague screws up?” —

    Before you can responsibly compare one statistic with another you must establish a credible relationship between the two. Because citizen complaints are perception-based (opinions critical of observed conduct) and internal investigations are rule-based, the relationship is non-existent. For example, even when a citizen is convinced an officer violated a rule it often turns out to be the case that the officer’s conduct (racing to a call, failing to take action, etc.) can be justified by factors unknown to the complainant. That is seldom the case with internal investigations, where the origin of the complaint exists in one employee’s awareness of a black and white rule or policy and his discovery that another employee is in violation.

    In addition, because of the activities of the social cancer occupying the office of police auditor, the public has been encouraged to file complaints against the police, much in the way it’s been encouraged to conserve water. So to attach any kind of credibility to the raw numbers of citizens complaints is not justified, nor is it to use it as a benchmark for anything else.

    Are cops better behaved? A dumb question, bordering on insulting. Violating a policy, such as one specifying the kind and content of certain reports, has nothing to do with being “better behaved,” and often everything to do with an overworked staff that is inundated with policy revisions. The fine-toothed comb approach Ms. Cordell brings to police policy enforcement is 180 degrees different than the one Judge Cordell once used on minority lawbreakers.

    Are cops understaffed? Is Jennifer Wadsworth’s brain on vacation?

    Are cops more inclined to look the other way? More inclined than what? Last year? 2012? The current percentage can only be down if it was formerly up, revealing this suggestion as just another peek into a cop-hater’s mind.

  6. Jennifer,
    Why are you interjecting your negatively biased opinions and speculation towards the San Jose Police Department in a “news article” in the news section of SJI? This is what has turned the SJ Mercury into a third rate newspaper. You are going to lose readers if they don’t feel that SJI can’t objectively deliver the news. Keep your opinions in the opinion section of SJI. My opinion of these folks compiling data is that they have way too much time on their hands, and this makes them feel they are doing something constructive, when in fact it is silly. How about if they become reserve police officers and help clean up downtown with all their spare time? Heck Jennifer, you could even do that.

  7. I love the trolls in the comments here missing the woods for the trees. Regardless of whether your paranoia is kicking in and you interpret the authors comments as being critical or judgmental of the police (which all I see are questions posed), if you fail to see that there are people of the community giving up their free time in order to find ways to improve the city we live in then I’m sorry that you live in such jaded circumstances. As the article points out this is an initiative that has only just got off the ground so obviously they’re going to be trying to figure out what direction to go in, how to make improvements, etc. All you clowns spewing negativity, chill… read the article as there are some people out there who actually give a flying proverbial.

  8. Crotch Gazer commented:
    “…your paranoia is kicking in and you interpret the authors comments as being critical or judgmental of the police (which all I see are questions posed)…”

    Let’s see how well this champion of data did collecting the information from this page. About the six comments posted here he claimed that “all” were the paranoid replies of police “trolls,” despite that four of them (that’s 66% Mr. Numbers Cruncher) had nothing at all to do with the police, and of the two that did, one was primarily aimed at pointing out an apples-and-oranges type error while the other was a criticism of the author’s mixing of news and opinion.

    Given your poor reading comprehension I can understand your attraction to raw data, but it appears that all you’ve found there is another subject in which to suck.

  9. No attraction to raw data here, just the pure comedy of your rants. Sounds like you have a future as being a statistician though, but a poor one at that with you jumping to incorrect conclusions. The fact that you thought that the statement about paranoia/police was aimed at all of the posts is incorrect… poor reading comprehension, yup, you would know all about that. The fact that you completely miss the point of my original post and continue on your “frustrated” rants – your mom can help you out with that, she’s helped me out a few times – just shows just how much of a troll you are.

  10. Crotch Gazer,

    Poor reading comprehension? Not likely. If you only meant to aim your comment at two of the six posts then the problem is with your composition (look up the word, specify). Your dyslexic, parenthetical remark, “which all I see are questions posed,” defies comprehension.

    As to your comment about my mother, well, I guess you just told us all we need to know about your immaturity and poor character. Still stinging from being bullied in high school?

    • Your assumption is not my failing, you really should stop projecting FFF (, which sounds like you have a stutter… wouldn’t be surprising). Anyhow, when you have something constructive to contribute to society aside from being a walking carbon dioxide producer for the local flora let us all know, we won’t hold our breath. In the meantime, tell your mom to keep my side of the bed warm.

  11. Crotch Gazer,

    That you laugh at underpants and not panties is telling. I don’t think you’ll be sharing a bed with anyone’s mom or sister, though I will remind the Boy Scout next door to “be prepared.”