Now Playing

In Oakland, We're All Watching the Watchmen

Thanks to Code for America's innovative new public records interface. 


Read more Smart City coverage here.

In most cities, obtaining a public record—which, thanks to the California Public Records Act, governments are required to disclose on request—can be a bureaucratic nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions.

But that is no longer the state of play in Oakland, which employs a streamlined and user-friendly system called RecordTrac. The system was born two years ago in the wake of Oakland’s Occupy protests, when the financially strapped city was besieged with public information requests. Struggling to keep up, it appealed to Code for America, the geeks-to-the-rescue nonprofit that embeds teams of technologists in local governments.

Jackpot: the three techies sent to Oakland created a program that provides unprecedented transparency. Anyone can peruse the more than 9,300 requests made over the last two years, most of which are for documents like police reports and official emails.

But there are occasional oddball queries: after Mayor Libby Schaaf pledged to maintain the “tasty secret sauce that is Oakland,” one citizen asked for the ingredients. The biggest disclosure to date came at the behest of the website Ars Technica, which asked for and received a data set of 4.6 million police-scanned license plates.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Joe Eskenazi at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Joe Eskenazi on Twitter @EskSF