Open Data for California?

California is at a crossroads. Sacramento continues to get failing grades for transparency. Our state government is not taking advantage of tech tools developed locally that are changing the world. But, there’s a bill with strong bipartisan support in front of our elected officials right now that could help improve the way our government works and save lives.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at a California State Senate hearing in favor of Senate Bill 573. Introduced by Senator Richard Pan, this new piece of legislation would establish the role of a statewide Chief Data Officer, who would be tasked with creating an open data portal for the state. This site would be a one-stop shop for government information. The bill contains many of the critical building blocks that could be the foundation of a more modern, user-friendly government for years to come.

I’ve seen first-hand the benefits open data policies can provide for citizens and government. My company’s technology platform has helped hundreds of state and local governments streamline their operations and realize significant cost savings. Our technology allows citizens to engage with governments through mobile devices, like they have come to expect from leading private sector companies like Amazon, Yelp, or Uber.

We partner with a growing number of civic technology companies who are creating tools that use open data. In order for these new tools to work universally, California needs a robust, statewide open data policy.

The Results are in. Open Data Works.

In Evanston, Illinois, people can now conveniently access restaurant health inspection scores on Yelp, because of open data.

We worked with Evanston to automate the release of the City’s restaurant inspection data, allowing citizen facing websites and apps like Yelp to easily display the restaurant scores to diners as they choose where to eat. It even updates in real time as scores change.

Instead of perhaps seeing the inspection score once you’ve already picked where to eat, we’ve used the power of open data to put this information at residents fingertips when it matters most.

Government’s goal in inspecting restaurants and publishing scores is public health and safety – using open data technology we’re taking the labor intensive work of a public health department, and with the click of a button, making it dramatically more valuable to its citizens.

Just think of the possibilities with California’s data sets.

Open Data to the Rescue

Hurricane Irene hit New York City in August 2011, but because of forward thinking open data efforts at the state level, emergency responders were able to locate citizens who desperately needed help when a disaster struck.

Long before the storm reached New York, the state had already been requiring agencies to make their data publicly available. One of these open datasets happened to be nursing home locations. With that information at their fingertips, first responders were able to quickly and easily evacuate nursing home patients from facilities at risk for power outages and flooding — finding empty beds in unaffected nursing homes where they could move seniors

When the state of New York enacted its open data policy, it didn’t know that nursing home data would be helpful for emergency crews. But, they did know that the state had powerful information that needed to be made publicly available. And they were right.

So what does all of this have to do with open data?

Open data can give city and state agencies the ability to better track building violations, and in a sense, put out these tragic fires before they start. Just look at what Chicago did when they had a similar situation. They created a “bad landlord” dataset and made this information public.

Open data enables one department to see what the other is doing, quickly and easily. By making building inspection data and violation history available online for both citizens and government officials, we can keep our children safe and prevent devastating future incidents like this from ever happening in the first place.

Seeing examples such as these, a few California state agencies have forged ahead and started to release their data sets. We’ve seen several recent examples of what’s possible when California opens up its data.

The California Department of Health and Human Services last year started releasing its data sets.

Using that data, civic technology developers in Sacramento created WICit, a real-time mapping application that helps families easily locate grocery stores where their federal WIC nutritional benefits are accepted.

The Fresno Bee has an ongoing investigative health series using the state health data that is being released.

The first article highlighted the significant health risks facing residents in the San Joaquin Valley.

Through open data, the reporter brought to life that residents in Fresno are more likely to either suffer or die from chronic diseases than anywhere else in California.

Because this state health information is now publicly available, we can start to figure out why residents in the San Joaquin Valley are suffering, create solutions to fix the problem, and ultimately save and improve lives.

Open Data Creates Jobs and Saves Taxpayers Millions

A statewide open data portal would also help spur economic development in California’s communities. A recent report found that civic technology spending in the U.S. will reach $6.4 billion this year.

Having access to open data empowers civic tech startups to create new technology that serves both government and its citizens.

We work with many young civic technology companies that are eager to grow their businesses here in California and rely on the flow of open data to enable the technology tools they are creating.

One of these civic startups is a company called OpenCounter. They have created a beautifully designed one-stop shop for business licensing so there is more transparent access to business information across a city. In doing so, cities like Palo Alto are able to project economic growth using data to make informed decisions on transportation and traffic, building and development, and budgeting for services.

Along with creating jobs, and designing a better city an open data program can save our state money.

In the U.K., the government started publishing infection rates from hospitals on their open data portal. By making this information easily accessible, hospitals started seeing infection rates drop through the exchange of best practices. Opening up this data helped lead to an estimated £34 million in savings.

Open data programs are helping others states save millions. In New York City, a single Freedom of Information (FOIL) request costs the city around $300. Every year, there are around 50,000 such requests — costing the city roughly $15 million annually. But, thanks to open data efforts, these requests can now be automatically processed. According to an open government advocacy group based in New York, the new automated process saves taxpayers $10 million every single year.

We are only at the beginning of this revolution – and, California, the birthplace of many of the world’s great technology breakthroughs, should be leading.

Open data increases government transparency, accountability, and provides improved service for a better citizen experience.

As I told our elected officials, a comprehensive open data policy at the state level will:

Save money. Open data increases government efficiency and reduce costs.
Create jobs. There is a growing industry that relies on publicly available government data.
Save lives. We don’t exactly know which open data set will be useful. But as we have seen it can literally save lives.

The evidence is overwhelming, which is why I urged the California State Senate to enact this new open data legislation. Senator Pan’s bill passed out of committee 7-1. Next up appropriations and then the entire State Senate. By calling on the Governor to appoint a Chief Data Officer and creating a statewide open data portal, California can be a leader in this new movement that is changing the way government works for the better.