Inaugural Summit on Data stresses importance of open data for California

150 150 Christopher Nelson

(photo credit: Phil Ung)

We live in an age where data is all around us, all the time. Whether it’s on the computer in front of us, on the USB stick in our pocket, or beaming through the air between satellites and now-ubiquitous smartphones.

Given our affinity for all things data in our personal lives, it’s alarming just how little most people know or care about what government data is public and how it can be used to inform some of the most important decisions we make each year.

It was in this spirit that California Forward convened an impressive list of those who care about data most in the Golden State in late March, right in the middle of Sunshine Week, to share thoughts and ideas on the many facets of open data and why it’s more important now than ever. This was the inaugural Summit on Data.

Lenny Mendonca, Director Emeritus of McKinsey & Company and Co-Chair of the CA Fwd Leadership Council, opened things up with some succinct commentary on the importance of open data in our state and country’s future.

“Open data and the evolution of that technology has the power to unleash enormous economic value,” Mendonca said, citing a McKinsey study from 2013 that estimated the potential to be around $3 – $5 trillion in fields like health care, energy revision and direct delivery of public services. He also listed advances in campaign finance disclosure accessibility and overall job creation and economic development as significant, tangential effects of embracing the open data movement wholesale across sectors.

[McKinsey furthers this line of research with a 2014 white paper on government’s role in open data, which you can read here]

And if this bird’s eye view wasn’t convincing for those in the audience, a litany of guest speakers gave TED-style talks ranging from five to 15 minutes in length and delved into the minutiae of open data in a range of different fields. Many of them had tables set up in a separate room that would allow for an even deeper dive on one’s own time during lunch or after the event.

For instance, Mariel Garza, Deputy Editor of the Editorial page for the Sacramento Bee said that  from a paper’s perspective as “end users” of open data, “it’s not just about procuring data, it’s about translating it, using it wisely and keeping it open and free.” This will only result in a more informed public and accountable elected officials, she said.

Nate Levine, the co-founder of OpenGov, drew the distinction between open data and open government: open data is putting it out there whereas open government is adhering to transparency as a principle and making the data useful.

California Assemblymember Phil Ting lead off his segment by saying “government works best when it works for us.” Lea Deesing, the Chief Innovation Officer of the City of Riverside detailed ways in which her city is working for its residents by offering data free of charge, with no licensing fees and only ensuring it adheres to privacy laws.

Yo Yoshida, creator of Appallicious, spoke of having Car Fax but for apartments, which is among several ideas meant to open up building code adherence data after the tragic loss of a friend by falling through stairs in his San Francisco apartment building.

The trend emerging here among these leading minds in data is that having open data is great, but we need more of it. A lot more. Each of them are spearheading efforts, some with institutional support (as is the case in Riverside or from a duo pioneering open civic data in Porto Alegre Brazil) or are being done as entrepreneurial endeavors like those of Yoshida and Levine.

With the trouble facing lawmakers in Sacramento so far in 2014, governments and elected officials from the State Senate to the city councils of the smallest cities in California could stem the tide of dwindling public confidence by embracing open data at all levels.

Not only does it promote accountable and cost-effective governance but as was the other major theme of the day, it presents a stunning array of new economic development and job creation opportunities. In short, everyone is a winner.


Christopher Nelson

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