Open Data

Recently I was watching the movie Antitrust from 2001 staring Ryan Phillippe as a computer programmer in the midst of the first tech bubble. In one scene, Ryan is seen searching the company’s secret database where he discovers extensive dossiers of employees at NURV. With ease he navigated individual profiles clicking away the countless hyperlinked details that unraveled the truth. But like most movies that protray the internet and techology as “just working”, I dismissed such as being plausible in the real world but admitted how cool it would be if information (not necessarily nefarious details such as in the movie) was accessable with ease. Fourteen years later I still find myself asking “are we there yet?”

Courtesy of Accela’s President and CEO Maury Blackman, I learned of California’s efforts to establish a Chief Data Officer, who would lead a statewide task of creating an open data portal. Initially this is a pretty ambitious and exciting initiative. Blackman captures the goals of open data in government pretty succinctly-

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

As a planner in the public sector, I couldn’t agree more as I’ve been a strong advocate of making as much data aviable for everyone to access. But as techie planner working in the depths of bureaucracy, I need to have a Debbie-downer moment to bemoan the challenges that we still face.

It wasn’t more than a few years ago that the buzzword “big data” came to the forefront as the next big technological solution that would make government more effective in solving many problems municipalities faced. It was envisioned mass data could be aggregated and analyzed to make better decisions. It wasn’t long before big data seemed to mysteriously disappear from our vocabulary- perhaps around the same time agencies had a sobering realization they couldn’t do it all on their own. But then came along the Open Data movement- empowering tech savvy citizens to pick up where big data left off by taking on the challenge themselves. Familiar with how archaic government can be from the inside, its been encouraging and exciting to see the movement progress knowing I have allies ready to jump in to help modernize how citizens interact with government and ultimately how government operates. But even now in 2015, we still have a lot of folks to convince that isn’t at the state level, but locally.

I’ve been at my current position long enough to remember seeing people’s eyes roll in trying to sell them on a coordinated GIS effort between agencies, and slowing see progress happen to where we are today. And while the strives made on a local level can be considered noteworthy, it’s still seems a tough sell for some departements and their leadership of the beneifts of releasing data, nevermind dedicating resources to adopt practices that produce usable data. Even with the support I have with my newfound brethren in Civic Tech, moving those gears from the inside can still be a challenge.

Many municipalities are still struggling to “going online” beyond tossing a few PDF’s on a website and calling it day, much less publishing meaningful data to download. And that’s where I feel the challenge lies for convincing local municipalities to open up their data as part of an open data initiative. Part of my sales pitch from the inside tends to focus more on the benefits of how adopting better tools and/or considering using universal data practices makes us more efficient at doing our jobs in internally. But the truth is trying to position oursevles to be “open data ready”. As we continue to get more and more municaplities and agecies onbroad, we need to remember to pitch those dovetailed benefits of the great public good with that of the efficiency at the department level.

With a coordinated open data effort occurring at the state level, I really do hope it provides the support, guidance, and encouragement of local municipalities to embrace open data. If not just to make data accessible, but to also encourage the much needed advancements that more and more tech litterate cititzens expect from their government. Not only do we empower people to make more informed decisions and make meaningful contributions to their communities, we share in work to make goverment better for everyone. The vision of big data and interconnected resources and data is still there, but we can’t reap the benefits if government thinks it has to do it alone.

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