San Francisco commits to open data

150 150 Cheryl Getuiza

San Francisco was once at the forefront of open data, and it hopes to get back to those ideals (Photo Credit: aslanix)

San Francisco is a long-standing technology Mecca, so it’s only fitting that city and county leaders recently committed to boosting its open data movement online.

“Openness and transparency are the fundamental basis for any successful government, particularly in an internet age,” said David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“We see, in many jurisdictions around the country, that when you release government data, you have an improved relationship between government and citizens. That has led to a lot of success in how you improve government, particularly when you harness the ideas and the talents of the public in how to analyze public data. That can lead us to innovating both government and our communities.”

President Chiu admits the city, who was once in the forefront in the open data movement, has taken backseat, prompting him to introduce the legislation.

In 2010, San Francisco leaders passed the city’s first open data ordinance, which essentially said that “as a city we should consider any and encourage the release of data by our various city agencies.”

“At that point we were ahead of the rest of the country, really a national leader, in the open data movement, but we’ve fallen behind,” said Chiu.

The legislation introduced recently by board President Chiu does three things.

It “creates a point person, a chief data officer position, within our San Francisco city government, which is of fairly significant size with 2,600 employees a $7 billion budget. The chief data officer will really maintain focus on the open data agenda. It also requires every city department, and we have over 50 departments, to designate a data coordinator to work with the public, the chief data staffer, to put these data sets out. And then probably just as important, it requires the development of consistent standards with how the data is presented.”

Right now, citizens who log onto, can browse through 500 city maintained data sets, but Supervisor Chiu says there are “literally thousands they could put out to the public.”

More data will be added and according to the board President, they’ve been making headway in the last few months.

For one, folks will soon be able to use a locator for picnic tables and other park facilities on their smartphones.

“There will be a place where every day San Franciscans can go to reserve a picnic table or a bar-b-que pit. It took almost four years to finally put that data out and there’s a local application developer that made an easy way to people with smartphones to find and reserve their picnic tables.”

Another data set comes from the frustrations of people living in the city.

“What happens when your car gets towed? We’ve had a lot of circumstances, in San Francisco, where residents, in a neighborhood, will wake up on a Sunday and find that their car was towed because of some special event. The public has been asking us, for a couple of years, for the city to put out, at the very least, some excel spreadsheets that let the public know when and where towing is supposed to occur. Private citizens are willing to take that data and create a very basic app, that will allow residents, to give a simple alert right before your car is going to be towed.”

But what board President Chiu is most excited about is putting the city’s finances and budgets online.

“Our residents want more transparency in our budget to be able to see exactly how and where every single dollar, of our city government, is spent on salary, contractors, programs, goods and services.”

For the better part of the year, the city controller has been putting together a place where folks can go, on the web, to see financial information. The link, SFOpenBook, can be found on

“This information is our efforts to continue to build people’s trust in government, of ensuring with openness and transparency people understand that their tax dollars are being put to good use. We’re also, frankly, just trying to make it easier for our residents to just get information. We have thousands of information requests every single day and we want to make it as easy as possible for people to access it,” said Chiu.

Being open and more transparent will hold elected leaders more accountable.

“It’s a good thing. I think government accountability, by the public is critical.”

“What I love about the open data movement is it’s not all about government putting the data out to the public, it’s about private citizens who analyze that data who often give us better answers to help government become more responsive to the people,” said Chiu.


Cheryl Getuiza

All stories by: Cheryl Getuiza