“Open Data” is a hot topic in the Capitol, and as legislative deadlines approach, it’s worth updating on where the issue stands, and what to keep in mind as the state considers a path forward.
What is Open Data for? Standardized and freely shared, public data can inform policymakers as well as state residents about the operations and performance of government, as well as invite innovation from the public, private and non-profit sectors through increased collaboration and analysis. In short, it is a path to accessing – and leveraging – the vast amount of information state and local agencies hold on everything from the economy to the environment, our transportation and education systems and more.
Most of this information is public record, but very little is shared or done so in a useable format. As a result, most Californians don’t know it exists, and opportunities for innovation and citizen engagement are lost. There is also demonstrable economic benefit to sharing this information, a government-commissioned study in the United Kingdom completed by Deliotte found annual direct economic benefits from its program estimated at around £1.8 billion, and a wider social value estimated in excess of £5 billion.
Due for hearing in the coming weeks are three key bills that advance core Open Data principles. Here’s what you need to know.
SB 272 (Hertzberg). Requiring local governments to inventory info collected by agencies.
To determine which information is a priority, the initial groundwork must be an inventory of information subject to public disclosure, its format and a catalogue of responsible parties.
The Hertzberg proposal advances this at the local level, covering thousands of municipal, county and special district agencies. It is a needed first step in assessing what information is available – and useable – at the local level.
AB 169 (Maienschein). Establishes key definitions of open data for local agencies.
Open Data has a straightforward and widely agreed upon definition; that data is freely available, machine-readable, and formatted according to national technical standards to facilitate visibility and reuse of published data. AB 169 enshrines a definition of open data for local agencies, ensuring there is uniformity among proliferating open data portals.
SB 573 (Pan). Appoint Chief Data Officer, create state open data portal.
While several cities and counties have passed open data policies and/or appointed Chief Data Officers, no such policy or office exists at the state level in California. The advantage of a state level policy and the Chief Data Officer is that it provides a central place to prioritize and vet the release of information.
Lack of this structure leaves a vacuum in terms of the governance of Open Data across government, and how to develop agreed upon methods and enforce standardization. Creating the Data Officer position has been done most often in other states, and the federal government, through Executive Order. SB 573 would see the legislature establish, and fund, such a position in California.
These proposals signal the beginning of a new era for public information, the transition from public documents to public data. What this means is public access can move beyond knowing what the government is doing, to knowing what it knows, and creating opportunities for collaboration.
The balance of state and locally focused proposals outlined above also reflects the fundamental issue in Open Data: its scope. To truly achieve its transformative potential, it is vital that open data policies and programs in California seek to free data from within the thousands of state and local agencies, departments and other bodies delivering or shaping public services in California – and make their information work together. Focusing on one or two key agencies isn’t enough, but the volume of information is immense.
Prioritization is the key. In the face of vast troves of new information, some open data efforts seem to suggest a bias towards low value (non-controversial) information. California might consider focusing its Open Data efforts around core policy questions where a stronger data strategy could truly move the needle on major issues. There have been other, more specific, data proposals in the Capitol this year on issues ranging from public safety to the Bay Delta, and setting clear policy goals for data would benefit both individual agencies and a prospective Data Officer, whether installed by the legislature or the Governor’s office via Executive Order.
Targeting specific problems with data can set the state up for achievable, meaningful wins from the jump. Most vital is getting started. Identifying available data subject to disclosure and documenting their format and current availability is a natural place to begin, and a necessary step in developing a long term strategy for management and sharing of information. With a better sense of what’s available, and where, in state and local government California can bring a modern approach to some of its most challenging questions.