One of several futuristic displays at the TechLA confernece held at Los Angeles City Hall (photo: Christopher Nelson)
California has taken its fair share of knocks in the past few years on government transparency and accountability. First the miniscule Los Angeles municipality of Bell made national headlines for the outrageous ways in which city managers were raiding taxpayer coffers to pad their own pockets. And this year, no less than three state Senators are facing criminal charges, with two under federal indictment.
It’s a huge step forward then, when the biggest metropolis in California and the second biggest in the country is quickly becoming the recognized national civic leader in the open data movement. Such was the case made time and time again at the first annual TechLA conference, organized by Mayor Eric Garcetti and held the last weekend of May at City Hall. Part conference complete with requisite panels and guest speakers, part job fair and part hackathon, TechLA was more than a glorified press conference.
“Being the most techie mayor in America is like being the tallest building in Canoga Park,” Garcetti joked in his opening remarks. But don’t let the humor undermine the significance of what Los Angeles unveiled in their new open data platform. Over 1,500 people RSVPed to see them unwrap one of the most ambitious undertakings of the young Garcetti administration.
“Angelenos deserve transparency and accountability, and an open view of government,” said Mayor Garcetti. “Our new Open Data portal gives residents access to the same information as their elected officials. With this new tool, academics, developers, journalists, and anyone with an interest in Los Angeles can access a one-stop treasure trove of information that was previously scattered across city websites, if it was available at all.”
Socrata is the company contracted by the City of Los Angeles to make all of this possible. They already had one successful launch last year with Controller Ron Galperin’s ControlPanelLA site that details many of the financial underpinnings of the city in an easy to sort and sift manner. This year’s launch, offering 170 different data sets with more to come, was a natural next step and now includes ControlPanelLA as one of its linchpins.
Kevin Merritt, CEO and founder of Socrata, works with governments at all levels across the globe on their open data initiatives, so it’s telling when he is so effusive in his praise of Los Angeles. While most cities send 5 employees to Socrata’s workshops on how to optimize data and city departments for maximum openness, Merritt said on a morning panel that Los Angeles sent 80.
Catherine Bracy, Code for America’s Director of Community organizing, echoed the sentiment. “We work in dozens of cities around the country and none have shown the desire to take on the problems that LA has,” Bracy said.
The website itself says it offers its data for users to “conduct research, develop web, online, and mobile applications, and generally learn more about Los Angeles.” Undoubtedly, journalists and civic-minded Angeleno’s alike will certainly mine the treasure trove Mayor Garcetti trumpeted.
Merritt reminded everyone at the panel in the packed city council chamber that the “prime stakeholders in government data is government itself.” Indeed, having vast swaths of data easily accessible and presented in a unified, coherent fashion also benefits those in office. As another panelist said, it fosters the movement away from gut-based decision making and toward data-driven governance.
Other cities, such as Singapore are “kicking our butts” as far as putting the data to work noted panelist Tom Deutsch of IBM, so there is still work to be done and wins to be defined. But it’s a huge step in the right direction. Government transparency is not just about throwing a bunch of spreadsheets online and calling it a day, it’s also about clean presentation of the data and ease of use of the tool. L.A. fulfills both requirements rather handily.
As the word continues to get out on the burgeoning tech hub in Los Angeles (particularly in Venice), the city’s future is looking up when it’s most prominent political figure is making such great strides to bring the public administration side into the 21st Century. It’s a municipality that is not without challenges ahead. Technological infrastructure in government is quickly becoming a cornerstone in addressing these problems head-on.
In an afternoon keynote, Tara Roth, president of the Goldhirsh Foundation, summed it the most succinctly: “Every problem in the world exists in Los Angeles, and every solution in the world exists in Los Angeles.”
Much more happened at TechLA. Check back for our continuing coverage of the event.