Data Summit: Should local governments embrace open data?

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Should Local Governments embrace the Open Data movement, or are the risks too great? That was one of many topics asked and answered this week in Long Beach at the latest California Forward and Code for America co-sponsored Regional Data Forums.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of financial and other data being out there,” said Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

“It allows for public-private innovation and cooperation and actually improves government.”

Mayor Garcia wants Long Beach to be synonymous with technology and openness in the coming years. Being one of 12 cities globally selected for a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to help spur local innovation will certainly help that cause.

On the ground level, he has Rachael Tanner, a Project Specialist with the City of Long Beach, spearheading the launch of a citywide open data portal much like what Los Angeles launched about a year ago.

“We can’t just throw data out there, we must incentivize its use,” Tanner said, adding that the question she has constantly been asking herself and others during the development of the portal is “How is our government more engaged, more dynamic and more responsive to the public?”

Although the movement toward openness is gaining ground in California, as CA Fwd reported on here and evidenced by the standing room only event in Long Beach, it’s hardly a new concept nationwide.

As Abhi Nemani, Los Angeles’ brand new Chief Data Officer, told the crowd, a recent McKinsey study pegged open data as a $3 trillion dollar industry. 

“The US government alone spent $170 billion on IT and tech in 2014,” Nemani said. “Compare that to the $10 billion video game industry.”

Nemani expected more gasps from the crowd than he got when floating those figures out there. But maybe it’s because everyone in attendance was already on board and in the know. It was clearly a crowd hungry to join the movement. Breakout sessions confirmed this sentiment: people were talking. Normally it takes prodding to give any fire to small group sessions but not here.

Nemani echoed something expressed by Tanner: “It’s not just sharing data, it’s creating friction with it…how you generate value with it.” Other presenters went on to talk about they were either doing just that or seeing it happen elsewhere.

Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach addresses a packed house

Andy Krakov of the California HealthCare Foundation talked about his organization’s ability to accelerate the release of state healthcare data, and their support of the state’s public health portal, launched earlier this year. 

Garrett Jacobs of Code For America noted that the US Government making census data public was essentially the genesis of IBM and defined a generation of computing. “You never know what’s next,” he said.

Jacobs spoke of Smart Procure, a site where city and other governments can submit data for procurement contracts so that other cities can compare pricing before bidding. It’s simple concept that is indicative of the savings and benefits to governments when they willingly share what would normally be considered “sensitive data.”

And Rhys Fureigh, also of Code For America, summed it up most succinctly when she said “Don’t wait for perfect data, you have to start somewhere.”

Often the mindset is of local governments especially is that they don’t know where to start, or what’s even possible. But as Tanner told CA Fwd, it’s as simple as starting with what’s already out there and going from there. Possibilities can only develop once the effort is underway.

CA Fwd’s Robb Korinke closed the day with one of several workshops happening simultaneously. His was policy-focused and informed those at the table about engendering the “political will to get the best data in the best format.”

For him and those at the actual table, it’s about balancing practicality with ambition. The first step can be as simple as identifying which players in city government need to be at the proverbial table to begin with.

Or it could be as simple as attending one of the upcoming events in your neck of the woods in advance of the big statewide summit happening during Sunshine Week in March of 2015. Check back here at for continued updates.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson