Calif. statewide open data effort stalls as cities succeed

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California may be home to some of the biggest tech companies in the world, but open data advocates believe the state is falling behind with its policies to drive the next wave of innovation.

Even as several cities in the state press forward with initiatives to expand the amount of data they make available to the public, a recent push to establish a statewide open data portal and install a chief data officer to oversee its creation foundered before it could reach the governor’s desk.

State Sen. Richard Pan introduced Senate Bill 573 in February, but after its steady progress through committee hearings, the State Assembly’s appropriations committee elected to table it on Aug. 27. With the Legislature set to recess on Sept. 11, that means that Pan will have to wait until next year if he wants to reintroduce the bill.

“We have lots of data out there, but until someone turns it into something actionable and usable, it’s not helpful,” Pan told StateScoop.

Cost concerns

The cost of Pan’s bill made lawmakers apprehensive. California already has a data portal set up at data.ca.gov, but the process of converting much of the information on the site into machine-readable formats, as the legislation would call for, would have come at a price.

In a report to the Assembly’s accountability and administrative review committee, consultant Cassie Royce estimates that “costs to create a statewide portal could be as low as $125,000 to update the existing data.ca.gov website,” but costs to employ the new CDO would’ve tacked on an additional $293,000 per year.

Additionally, Royce claims there could be “unknown costs, potentially in the low millions, for over 200 state entities to appoint a data coordinator, identify data sets and create a plan for data publication” and sees “additional cost pressures, potentially in the millions, for over 200 agencies to post available data.”

But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the bill’s co-author, sees those costs as merely an initial investment that could pay off big for the state down the line.

“Relative to the state budget for everything else, it’s fairly minuscule, and given the huge benefit and the huge opportunities that it could bring for the state, I think there’s no question that we should do it,” Ting said. “We’ve seen uniquely where the private sector gets involved and crunches it and really makes it useful for folks, it’s been really accepted.”

Ting, whose own Assembly Bill 1215 with similar goals was also held in the chamber’s appropriations committee, specifically wants to help more companies follow the model of real estate website Zillow. The company uses property value data to help potential renters and buyers understand the area’s housing market, and Ting points out that “the backbone of that data is really from government.”

A number of companies that do business in California echo Ting’s point, according to the Data Transparency Coalition, an advocacy group pushing for open data. The group counts companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Booz Allen Hamilton among its supporters who want to see more states make their data accessible.

“Many of our members are data analytics companies and they want to help government managers make data-driven decisions,” said Hudson Hollister, the coalition’s executive director. “Some of our companies want to build the next ‘TurboTax’ for regulatory reporting or contractor reporting.”

Not only does Pan think those kinds of efforts would “generate tax revenue and stimulate the economy,” but he also thinks open data could help the government itself understand where it has room for improvement.

“It would give us a chance to learn more about ourselves,” Pan said. “Open data will breed these opportunities for us to improve our efficiency.”

Local lessons

Ting said he’s seen that firsthand during his time working in San Francisco as the city’s assessor-recorder before he headed off to the Assembly.

In particular, the city saw substantial increases in the number of people using public transportation as it started to release data about its bus and light rail schedules.

“When you have those apps, anybody with a smartphone or anyone who can get to the Web can pretty easily and quickly see when the bus was actually going to come because it was real-time data,” Ting said. “It really allowed people to weigh [their] options in real time.”

San Francisco has a robust open data portal as well, and other cities in California are following suit. On Aug. 6, Berkeley officially launched an open data portal, after months of testing it out with a pilot program.

“This is just clearly good government and we strive to be open and transparent,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko said.

According to IT Director Donna LaSala, the city started considering adding an open data portal in February 2014.

“We’d been hoping for a while that we could do it, but with years and years in cuts of staffing, it’s hard to start any new programs when you’re cutting and cutting,” LaSala said.

LaSala estimated that the project required roughly 1,500 hours of work for the city to get things up and running.

That might seem like a daunting number for a city government, but LaSala found a creative solution to draw in some extra workers. As an adjunct professor at the Presidio Graduate School of Sustainable Management, LaSala was able to get the work on the project included as an “experiential learning” component of a course in the program, and that made all the difference.

“It was very convenient for me to make sure it was OK with everybody and go for it,” LaSala said. “That was really where the majority of the resources came from.”

LaSala stresses that the software itself didn’t cost much, but that labor was certainly significant. The challenge came from some of the city’s more outdated technologies.

“We’re dealing with some very challenging legacy systems in the city, in particular our central enterprise resource system is 1990s technology, and getting the data out in a way that could be automatically updated and then pushed up to the open data was a challenge,” LaSala said.

Data portal possibilities

But with 17 data sets like public employee salaries, crime statistics and restaurant inspection results now available, Chakko hopes the change will free up some city staff from constantly answering public records requests.

“A number of the data sets we’ve put up are data sets we’ve actually had a large number of public record requests for,” Chakko said. “Maybe we’ll get fewer requests because it’s all on the portal and we won’t need to have staff to do a lot of work to make data in a format that works for people.”

LaSala added that the tool is already making things easier on city staff with some of their more day-to-day responsibilities.

“Internal staff from different departments use the data as well,” LaSala said. “No longer are you waiting to get a data extract from another department to finish your report, but rather you’re going on that open data portal.”

But if the lawmakers hope to see something similar come to California as a whole, they have some waiting to do.

Pan is mulling a bid to revive his bill next year, while Ting could introduce a new bill on the subject, but neither are publicizing their plans just yet. In the meantime, the pair will have to focus on the progress some parts of the state are making, as they continue to evangelize on behalf of open data.

“We haven’t been successful yet, but I think the idea is very important, to keep championing that idea,” Ting said.

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California, Open Data, Open Government, San Francisco, State & Local News, States, Zillow
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