City of Palo Alto spearheading work toward smarter California government

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

It is only fitting that the City of Palo Alto, commonly referred to as the birthplace of Silicon Valley, home to some of the world’s largest technology corporations, is leading the digital charge in another arena by embracing technology to create a more inclusive form of local California government. 

Yesterday Palo Alto unveiled its latest effort to encourage government transparency and accountability under the city’s “Open Data Initiative”, an initiative which is designed to boost civic participation in the city’s decision making process through the use of new technology and social media.

Here at California Forward we believe that transparency is a cornerstone of good governance so we are keeping an eye on measures taken by state, county, and city governments aimed at removing barriers to public access to information and increasing openness. 

Following in the footsteps of another California city, San Francisco, Palo Alto has partnered with a local technology firm Junar to power a cloud-based Open Data platform granting public access to machine-readable data sets generated by various city departments. The Open Data platform, launched Wednesday, will increase access to data and keep the city at the forefront of innovation and public sector technology.  

Although the information being hosted on the site is already available to the public, the much more accessible way in which it will now be published enhances the community’s ability to use the data to better understand the inner workings of the city. 

“A lot of data and information exists out there, but in many ways it’s lying fallow because of the unusable format it’s in. We want to be turning this data into projects that create a more informed citizenry,” said Palo Alto’s City Manager James Keene in an interview with Mashable

In addition to advancing transparency and community involvement, city officials see a much more practical use for the data. Officials hope that the data will be used by tech savvy residents (Stanford University is within city limits) to develop innovative applications to improve the efficiency of city services at no cost to the city. 

Back in February, the City of Palo Alto, in partnership with Stanford University, hosted its first hack-a-thon. The university students were challenged to use the city’s data to build an application in 24 hours. Mission accomplished.  The hackers developed “StreetViewer”, a searchable database of the city’s street conditions.  The application allows citizens to view pictures of every city street alongside a rating of its physical condition which is measured on a Pavement Condition Index (PCI) scale from 1 to 100.

The city plans to release more datasets in the future, but so far has only published the following:

  • 2010 census data for Palo Alto
  • Pavement condition ratings
  • City tree locations
  • Park locations
  • Bicycle paths and hiking trails
  • Creek water level
  • Rainfall tide
  • Utility data

This new interactive channel will hopefully increase civic participation and lead to social and economic benefits for the city and may even serve as a model for others.  

“Our hope is that by our efforts and modeling it for other cities and communities is that we build public trust in government,” said Keene. “If we can test drive this and show how it can be done, I do think it’s scalable to other cities. Nobody will dispute anywhere that a more informed community and more open government in the end isn’t a good result for any city in this country.”


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg