California Plans Next Moves for Open Data

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Efforts to bring open data into, well, the open have touched off widespread discussion as to just where the use of the information is headed, and whether there is a need for expanded oversight and state legislation.

With more government agencies taking on the task of looking at and publishing their data for all to see, technologists and officials are considering whether better defining rules of the game are the next natural steps in the progression.

The conversation made its way to the 2015 California Technology Forum the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 13, where a panel of experts talked about how they approach the use of state data strongholds, processes for opening the information to the public and the need – or not – for potential for state controls.

During the panel, Michael Wilkening, undersecretary of California’s Health and Human Services Agency, said he originally had reservations when it came to open data releases within his agency.

He admitted that his former “data” experiences centered on breaches rather than sharing, leaving him weary when it came to potential Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) implications.

“When I started hearing about open data and open data portals, everything was couched in these terms like transparency and return on investment and more participatory government. All of these things are great and resonated [with me]… and yet I was having a very visceral negative reaction every time we talked about this subject,” he said “With my background… when people were talking data with me, it was in terms of data breaches. That’s what I was reacting to, and the term ‘open data’ wasn’t helping to get past that.”

Better definition of terminologies and access to a knowledgeable team eventually swayed Wilkening to understand the benefits and outcomes of the process.

The move to put unprivileged data on an accessible portal within the agency has been progressing rapidly, according to the agency undersecretary. At least six departments have been strongly involved in the analyzing and opening of data.

Chris Cruz, chief deputy director of operations with the California Department of Technology, said efforts are underway to develop his organization’s framework and policies for sharing the data publically, as well as more effectively between agencies.

Cruz said analytics have played a significant role in looking at the information available from a “means and measurements” perspective. Mining the data has helped his teams to plot the best course of action moving forward.

Civic technologist Ash Roughani, founder of Code for Sacramento, spoke on the panel from an outside perspective, and said the discussion around data use has spurred cooperative interactions between the technology community and government.

“Open data is much less of a thing than it is a way of going about things,” he said. “It’s sort of a mindset in how folks in government and the folks in the community think about working with each other.”

Roughani said the development of health-related resources through the use of open data has increased communication and cooperation between government data publishers and consumers.

“Overall, this has been a huge opportunity to really think about government as a platform, and how do data consumers interact with data owners and data publishers,” he said. “Again, we’re really trying to document as much of this as possible because we think it’s really groundbreaking work in how the community interacts with the state.”

When discussion fell to conversation of Senate Bill 573, Sen. Richard Pan’s legislation that would set an open data policy for the state and require the governor to appoint a chief data officer, the panel took a slightly divided stance.

“We’ve launched our effort without executive order or legislation. We’re just doing it,” Wilkening said. “In talking to folks throughout the nation at this point on open data, I’ve seen different models from the legislature passing a law or there’s an executive order, and I’ve heard varying degrees of success relative to that.”

Wilkening said he is concerned that a strict mandate would lead to hurried department data dumps throughout the state, ultimately compromising the quality and usefulness of the information.

“I think if you do things in really compressed timeframes, the negatives that come out of it will subsume you pretty quickly,” he said. “If people see an effort as a positive, they’ll continue to invest in it. If they see it as a negative, they’ll do it because they’re compelled to do it, but they won’t continue to invest in it.”

With regard to the potential appointment of a chief data officer, Wilkening said he has yet to make up his mind about whether the top leadership role would improve the overall process.

Cruz agreed, adding that there was some confusion as to what the executive role would include and how it might impact the “grassroots” collaborative partnerships that have already been established.

“I think right now we have synergy within the departments, we have synergy within the state to be able to move forward,” Cruz said. “There are partnerships that are generated, and I think that will create the excitability and positive momentum to make this happen.”

Both Cruz and Wilkening noted that the role could bring unforeseen benefits to the transparency effort.

From the perspective of their community counterpart, Roughani said the move toward legislation would help to protect the stability of the open data movement in the long term. While he said that what the initiative shows so far deserves credit, the sustainability of the efforts through administration changes remain to be seen.

“In the next administration, would an executive order sort of eviscerate that initiative?” he asked. “Legislation gives you the benefit of having this carved out space and having a line item in the budget. I do think that’s important if this is the future…”

As for the future of SB 573 and open data in California, state government and civic technology groups will just have to wait and see.

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