Open data policy would help solve many issues

Someday – five, 10 or 20 years from now – we’ll look back and wonder how the state of California operated without knowing how many businesses are created in a given week, or the true cost of pension obligations, or which public programs were achieving desired results.

How long we wait for information like that is dictated by how long public agencies wait to embrace the open data movement.

About a dozen states and numerous cities and counties across the country – including some in California – have passed some kind of open data policy in the last few years. This year, more lawmakers are showing interest in increasing access to data regarding core issues, establishing formal policies and practices – even appointing a chief data officer.

However, just having an open data policy doesn’t guarantee progress; still some existing efforts are seeing modest results. Some communities have robust lists of basketball courts and bicycle thefts, but high-value information such as contracting, spending or administrative actions are often left not released or “in progress.”

How California proceeds is critical. Open data has tremendous potential to transform government and the private sector. It can help policymakers learn if programs are working – even if we understand the problems to be solved. Achieving this potential depends on the right approach, and one that encompasses all levels of government.

This is a lesson for California.

A comprehensive open data policy would allow the state, its residents, and private and nonprofit sectors to explore issues in an entirely new way, one that emphasizes hard information and eliminates the silos of knowledge that separate state, city, county and other activity. We’re three steps away.

Step 1. Let’s figure out what we have, and where it is.

California needs a better understanding of how public agencies store information. This includes financial data, as well as a host of other indicators and inventories. The federal government started with the implementation of the White House’s open data policy, in an effort “to develop a clear and comprehensive understanding” of the data assets federal agencies possess. This includes knowing what information is where, who maintains it and in what formats.

Step 2. Let’s make this information work together.

How many business licenses were filed in Kern County last month? You’d have to ask each of its cities and possibly several other agencies to know. If you could ask, you’d get a look at what direction the region’s economy was headed, and what was driving it. As is, we rely on lagging and often soft indicators to extrapolate such activity.

Questions like these exist across state and local government – and require the collaboration of both to adequately answer. High-value information should be digitized, connected, compatible and available in real time. This means moving away from PDFs and toward “machine readable” formats, and structured data that can be holistically analyzed and communicated to the public and other stakeholders.

Step 3. Let’s prioritize data, and make it a reliable tool for government and the private sector.

Data should be treated as infrastructure and foundational to government operations. To do this, a vetted approach with agreed standards and practices will need to take shape. Big cities and state agencies can afford chief data officers and highly trained staff, but to answer the real questions we’ll need a holistic approach, one that integrates not just a few state agencies and big cities, but the state’s 58 counties, 488 cities, and thousands of other special districts, boards and agencies.

We want a government that works, and data is the key to that. It’s not just a “nice to have” tool for transparency, it’s the potentially transformative key to addressing – maybe even solving – the most pressing issues of our times, from the environment to economic development to education. California should lead by developing the nation’s most comprehensive data policy, inclusive of its many thousands of state and local departments.

Let’s get going, and let’s get it right.

Robb Korinke is a principal at GrassrootsLab and leads

California Forward’s Technology-

Enhanced Government efforts.