How CIR’s Eyes on Oakland Project Got Oakland Residents Talking About Public Surveillance

by Jack Fisher


Eyes on Oakland was a collaborative project launched in 2015 by The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and the Mobile Arts Platform in Oakland, California. The project used a mobile van retrofitted with a portable recording studio and a screen printing station to engage with the public on the topic of surveillance in the city. Eyes on Oakland conducted brief surveys and interviews, and served as a conversation catalyst to both inform and solicit input on surveillance from Oakland residents. Over the course of three months, the project combined the interviews, the dialogue, and the interactive screen printing to build an art installation at the Oakland Museum.


Project Goals: Cole Goins, who was involved with the project at CIR, describes the project as an “interactive, art-meets-journalism installation/initiative” that aimed to inform citizens of Oakland, California, about the city’s current and proposed surveillance practices and technology, and to solicit their thoughts about the topic. In addition, Goins noted the general lack of a direct and conversational approach to informing the public about surveillance technology. He identified Eyes on Oakland as an exploration of dialogue as a more effective way to articulate the scope and implications of the topic. “High level, the goal was to test a new way to directly engage people with information about surveillance technology used by their police department in a way that they don’t normally encounter through journalism,” Goins said.

Tools and Technology: Eyes on Oakland used social media, primarily Twitter and Tumblr, throughout this project. These platforms were used mostly as ways to announce the location of the van and to document the events and the art installation, rather than channels through which direct engagement with the community was conducted. The location of the van and the installation at the Oakland Museum served as physical community meeting places—the nature of the project was better suited to offline communication. “I was less interested in digital metrics, and more interested in the number of people we actually interacted with,” Goins said. The physical tools the project used were a vintage Ford Falcon van (retrofitted with an audio recorder, a mic, and a GoPro), a mobile screen printing kit, and a prepared five question quiz. After administering the quiz and using its results to guide a conversation about surveillance technology, the Eyes on Oakland crew gave the participants the prompt, “Surveillance is…” and invited them to write their answer on a screen printed card that the citizens themselves had inked. The cards were then collected and then put into the installation at the Oakland Museum.

Impact: Eyes on Oakland directly interacted with 120-130 people on the streets around Oakland. Furthermore, visitors to the installation at the Oakland Museum were invited to fill out the prompt there. About 700 visitors to the museum filled out and submitted the prompt while viewing the exhibit. In total, there were just under 1,000 direct contributors to the project. “It was a fun way to talk about a serious topic,” Goins recalled. “I think there are a lot of opportunities for newsrooms to work with artists and museums to consider alternative ways to publish stories we want to tell and get information to people.”

Organization Background: The Center for Investigative Reporting is an Emeryville, CA, based investigative journalism organization. The group publishes their work under the center’s web, podcast, radio and social media brand Reveal. On Reveal’s website, print articles are published under three categories: Accountability, Inequality, and Sustainability. The group, a nonprofit, accepts “gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals and organizations,” according to its website. The majority of CIR’s funding comes from foundations and from memberships.

Project Resources: This was a collaborative effort that spanned 6-7 months, from January to July of 2015. Roughly, January to April were spent planning and designing the idea. The van was dispatched when the installation at the museum opened in April. The van was mobile and conducting surveys and promoting dialogue within the community from April until the installation closed in July 2015.

Here’s how it happened

Goins points to some previous collaborations with California College of the Arts (CCA) as the genesis for Eyes on Oakland. “CIR had a relationship with the CCA. We did one of our TechRaking events, which pairs journalists mostly with technologists and in this case artists and designers at CCA. Through that event, we established a really good relationship with CCA and CIR as an organization had done a lot of really creative work blending art and journalism–creative storytelling and trying to reach new communities and tell these complex stories in new and creative ways, and to figure out ways we could bring people into that process.”

Through his relationship with CCA, Goins met founders of the Mobile Arts Platform Peter Foucault and Chris Treggiari. Along with Aaron McKenzie, then a program manager at CCA’s Center for Art and Public Life, the three started discussing potential collaboration opportunities and based on CIR’s recent reporting on local police surveillance (particularly a newly proposed city wide surveillance center in Oakland), they devised the project as a way to physically move through the city while informing residents of the city’s surveillance initiatives. They were intrigued by exploring how they could “use more of a direct conversational approach to really articulate the impact and the implications of what these tools are and how they actually gather information about people in Oakland,” according to Goins.

Here’s what worked

1. Collecting simple and fun contributions

Goins identified the significance of the screen printing station’s interactivity and the relaxed tone of the engagement solicitations. People were given the opportunity to learn about surveillance through dialogue, physically create something (the screen print), meditate on their discussion, and then answer the short prompt accordingly. “Having something fun and simple where people can actually create a response worked really well,” Goins said.

2. Discuss the specifics

“Part of the challenge with reporting about surveillance technology is that it’s hard to communicate to an individual how it affects them day to day, directly,” Goins said. “There’s a traditional reaction about surveillance technology: Nothing to hide,nothing to fear. Meaning, if my information helps catch a criminal or a terrorist, that’s fine.” Eyes on Oakland found that explaining specific pieces of technology, such as license plate scanners and Stingrays, was much more effective in helping citizens realize what surveillance actually means on a practical level. In turn, this tended to help stimulate some more nuanced conversations and responses to the prompt.

3. Partnering with other events and community organizers

Partnering with other organizations and events was crucial. Although the Eyes on Oakland crew occasionally set up in naturally busy areas, they found greater success in going to places where events were already happening. Using pre-planned community events (and networking ahead of time to find them) was critical.

Here’s what could work have worked better

1. Navigating the language barrier

“Our goal was to tap into communities across the city, and Oakland is a really diverse place,” Goins said. They didn’t have the resources to have deeper conversations with some of the Spanish speaking or Asian communities within the city. “Having someone who spoke different languages on our team, such as Cantonese or Spanish, would have helped a lot in engaging different communities,” Goins noted, adding that partnerships with ethnic media and local organizations that serve Oakland’s diverse communities would have helped connect with more people and add a greater diversity of perspectives to the project

2. Contact information collection and thinking about long term engagement

Eyes on Oakland faced some conceptual challenges regarding the solicitation of contact information from their participants. “The topic was evolving,” Goins said. “Oakland was forming a citizen Privacy Advisory Commission at the time, which was something that residents people could weigh in on. So there were developments that we could have shared with people that we engaged through Eyes on Oakland. We could have used this approach to directly stay in touch with people who might be interested in updates, and keep them interested over time.” Ultimately, the project decided not to collect contact information from those who participated. “[It] felt a little weird to do a project about surveillance technology and data that’s collected about you, and then collect data about people,” Goins recalled. “Doing it again, we would probably revisit that, and I think most people who we talked to would be pretty ok with us asking for their email address.”

Here’s what else you should know

  • Physical space as an engagement metric: Eyes on Oakland considered the installation at Oakland Museum as their publishing platform. “Just like you’d count page views of a story, we could have counted total visitors to the installation as a page view equivalent,” Goins said.
  • Potential monetization: While monetization was not a goal for Eyes on Oakland, a similar project could be monetized through events- ticket sales to a fun event or food and drink sales could be ways to bring some money into your organization.
  • You don’t need a van: While the van served as a cool mobile recording studio and a unique nucleus for the events, it shouldn’t be considered completely necessary. Eyes on Oakland conducted some events with just a table, the screenprinting kit, and the printed materials. If a van isn’t in the budget, don’t let that stop you!

Learn More

Tweet at Cole Goins (@colegoins) to learn more about this project.

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