(photo credit: Drriss & Marrionn)
We sat down with our own Robb Korinke to discuss our transparency portal and the current state of open data and transparency in California, as well as what 2014 will have in store for California Forward on those topics.

In 2013, is it safe to say that the topics of open data and open government have now become mainstream? What’s your take on the last 12 months and the progress that has been made in those areas?

Open data is still a relatively new concept, widely held to have truly taken shape as a set of common concepts at a meeting in Sebastopol in December 2007 which including many prominent Silicon Valley and technology leaders. In the years since, the concept has evolved and, partially as a byproduct of of the Internet itself evolving, become more ‘expected’ by the general public.

CAFwd is working closely with the state and several agencies to talk about how to open more data, and many state agencies (Health, Caltrans among them) have taken great strides already. Many local jurisdictions are also freeing more information. It’s all on a  solid trajectory, though I think the coming 12-18 months are more about building political will and capacity than implementing huge new data initiatives. 

One “win” for transparency was the Secretary of State’s decision to release bulk campaign finance data in a daily downloadable file. What is the significance of this?

This wasn’t something we specifically advocated (Common Cause was a key leader here), but it is a ‘win’ for California. That said, it is a small step forward. The process for acquiring and leveraging this information is not yet to contemporary standards and a pending reboot of Cal-Accesss will take this quite a bit further.

Many californians don’t know anything about special districts; what does the special district search portion of the portal offer to them?

Special districts have at times been referred to as ‘secret governments’ because they are little or mis- understood. The services they provide, however, such as water delivery, fire protection, airport administration and others, are common and everday essential services. We are out to make that connection and expand people’s knowledge of how this gets done.

The portal is a partnership with the CA Special Districts Association to surface more information about what these districts do, how they are funded and the services they provide. We believe that this is a unique effort, and one that will help more people connect with these vital services.

The State of Transparency report garnered widespread media attention. Do you think the attention is indicative of the direction society is going in terms of what citizens expect to know about their government?

I think there is a hunger to connect the disparate reports of transparency efforts and legal proceedings to know, holistically, where are we in terms of communication between the people and their government? Who is doing this well, and where ‘should’ we be, given modern standards. There are so many levels of government, and their operations often complex and layered, that many people — I believe — aren’t sure what information is important, or what questions to ask. This is part of the mission we’re on, to help people who want to be engaged to find the right information, talk to the right people and help advance positive change.

In 2014, what are the issues and topics in the realm of transparency that you think deserve the most attention moving forward? Can we expect to see those on the portal?

Modernization of state infrastructure with respect to data and the management of vital information. I mentioned before we may be in a ‘groundwork’ phase for several more months, but moving the state away from siloed operations and paper-based transactions is a huge need, and one that is also recognized by state leadership. 

It will also be an election year, and a unique cycle in that the blemishes of 2012 and its ‘dark money’ will loom large over statewide races. New laws are in place to protect these processes, but there is more light needed in these dark corners. There are good, committed people working on this and I expect it to get a lot attention.

And one other note on elections, we will be choosing a new Secretary of State, who holds the keys to many vital transparency tools. I will hope to see robust discussion of Cal-Access and other efforts to improve state — and local — level transparency with respect to campaign finance, lobbying and stat operations as part of that campaign.