Opinion

SD’s Open Data Turnaround Hinges on Accessibility

SD’s Open Data Turnaround Hinges on Accessibility

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Open Data policies are coming to San Diego. What does that mean? Let’s make sure everyone knows what we’re talking about.

Open data describes not only the availability of some sets of information, but also the usefulness of that information. Let’s take a simple example.

Here’s San Diego’s city charter.

Fix San Diego Opinion logoYou’ll notice it is downloadable from the city’s website as a PDF document. While the charter is “open” in its public availability, the text itself has been placed inside a complicated format – in this case it’s Adobe’s PDF format. It’s difficult for some people to access PDF documents, and it’s difficult for anyone to build things that will do something useful with the data in PDF-formatted documents, because they aren’t designed for interaction and editing.

Compare that to Baltimore’s city charter.

The State Decoded project worked with Baltimore to open up its city charter, and the result is public data that is not only available, but available in several formats, open for the public to comment on and downloadable in several standardized and open formats. That means web developers can more easily create applications that pull in the charter’s language without having to recreate it themselves.

That’s a very simple example of how open data can be used effectively when it’s available. Other examples:

• Philadelphia’s 2012 “Bulldog budget” effectively visualized that city’s budget by taking the raw data and applying open data concepts.

• Chicagoans have used open data overlayed onto maps to visualize how individual buildings are zoned, making it easy for individuals and businesses to shop for desirable locations.

• Using New York’s recent open data policies, a team combined that city’s childcare facility data with information from Yelp to help parents find quality, available childcare in their area.

Many cities across the nation have already begun implementing policies requiring governments to open up their data sets in useful ways. San Diego is playing catch-up.

On Wednesday, I moderated a Society of Professional Journalists panel on how to bring open data policies to San Diego. Each panelist had a different idea about how individual San Diegans can help ensure the city will reap the rewards that come with robust open data policies.

• City Councilman Mark Kersey said people can help by reading and suggesting improvements for his draft open data policy. He and Councilwoman Sherri Lightner have begun work on an open data policy that will bring San Diego to the fore among cities committed to making public data accessible and useful.

• Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye urged San Diegans to get involved in their community’s planning group, where they can wield the city’s data to effect changes they want to see in their community and in the city.

• Jed Sundwall, co-founder of Measured Voice, suggested people engage directly with data and the open data community to brainstorm new uses for open data and help others with their ideas. Need help getting involved? Start here.

• Benjamin Katz, CEO of Givalike.org and JSX Inc., asked that people adjust their thinking from focusing on passing one policy to focusing on how we will fund, staff and support the open data initiative in San Diego government over the long term. We’ll need ideas and passionate people to follow through with city leaders.

• Joel Hoffman of Voice of San Diego asked journalists and story-tellers to craft more complete stories using data. The more people see data used in ways that impacts their lives, the more the gospel of open data will spread itself. One example: the award-winning work done by The Guardian last year profiling the rights of gay people in America using data from each state.

We are at the precipice of an exciting opportunity in San Diego. We have the chance to make inert paper files living in a dark basement come to life and create a platform from which innovators can launch projects that better every aspect of public life. We’ll need lots of help, and you don’t have to be a computer genius to participate. The San Diego Regional Data Library meet-ups, hosted by that organization’s executive director, Eric Busboom, do a great job of empowering community members of all skill levels to get involved. Think of something that interests you, find some relevant data and go from there.

Seth Hall is a local writer and technologist, and a contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can reach him at voice@s3th.com or via Twitter: @loteck.

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Seth Hall

Seth Hall
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7 comments
David Hall
David Hall

"We have the chance to make inert paper files living in a dark basement come to life and create a platform from which innovators can launch projects that better every aspect of public life." Oh brother. Please spare the hype. What kinds of city data sitting in the dark on paper files would "better every aspect of public life." For most of these so-called "innovators", this is really about using tax dollars to publish data that can then be used to create apps to generate revenue. People like Ben Katz have been trying to make a living sucking off the local government tech teat for years. Is there data that could be published? Of course. Will everything published be cost effective, provide a real value to the ordinary citizen, and promote world peace? No. Keep it simple, keep it focused. Be very selective in what gets published, and don't look at every exemption or compromise in the policy as a "flaw".

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

"We have the chance to make inert paper files living in a dark basement come to life and create a platform from which innovators can launch projects that better every aspect of public life." Oh brother. Please spare the hype. What kinds of city data sitting in the dark on paper files would "better every aspect of public life." For most of these so-called "innovators", this is really about using tax dollars to publish data that can then be used to create apps to generate revenue. People like Ben Katz have been trying to make a living sucking off the local government tech teat for years. Is there data that could be published? Of course. Will everything published be cost effective, provide a real value to the ordinary citizen, and promote world peace? No. Keep it simple, keep it focused. Be very selective in what gets published, and don't look at every exemption or compromise in the policy as a "flaw".

Eric Busboom
Eric Busboom

David, We probably don't have a lot of valuable data in paper files that is useful to the general public; it's actually on microfiche. Pulling old permits, construction and ownership records can take a lot of time. However, we're not targeting that data ( pre-1993 ) we're more interesting in the electronic form of permit data after 1993. Regardless, "Paper in the corner" is an apt metaphor. More specifically, the data I think would be most valuable are: Capital improvement Projects ( Coming, thanks to Jeffrey Johnson andJoe La Cava ) Crime Incidents 311 Calls, requests for city service. City assets -- buildings, etc, with age and cost of required improvements Business activity Emergency vehicle dispatch Restaurant Reviews. ( Probably coming, thanks to Yelp ) I know of programmers and non profits interested in all of these datasets, all of whom are dedicated to making San Diego a better place and need data to do it. Also, insinuating Ben Katz is a government profiteer is a high compliment to profiteers; he is a key civic technologist who has been instrumental in pushing for better use of technology in government. With regards to civic technology, San Diego's core problem is that, unlike Chicago, New York, San Francisco, etc, we don't have dozens more like him. Eric Busboom San Diego Regional Data Library http://sandiegodata.org San Diego Regional Data Libraryhttp://sandiegodata.orgSANDAG, through its public safety division ARJIS, is now publishing crime data to the web. This is a major advance in accessibility, since previously crime incidents were only available through a Public Records Act request, and usually involved a fee...

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz

David - your implication that I'm some sort of con artist looking to fleece the government is offensive and inaccurate. While I do an occasional government project, it is a tiny part of my business (less than 1%) and I regularly volunteer my time to try to improve technology in government. Further, there is nothing wrong with providing good technology to government or building a valuable business helping to take government data and make it more usable. As for the city data that's available, you might want to take a look at what New York City has done - having released over 2000 datasets on businesses, public safety, transportation, city services and much more. These data sets are being used by community activists, nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurs, and even within government. They're being used to improve communities, help businesses succeed, make government more efficient, and increase transparency. And, when done right, releasing data is absurdly cheap. I agree with you that we need to be careful about government waste. But open data is not a waste, open data is one of the best ways to identify the waste.NYC Open Datahttps://data.cityofnewyork.us/data

Seth Hall
Seth Hall

Hi David. I look around at what other cities are doing with their open data initiatives and I, for one, buy into the hype, since I can see the completed products being hyped. We agree - this is about using tax dollars that are already spent archiving this data in antiquated, inaccessible ways and opening them up for people to create apps that would ideally generate revenue. Hopefully we can also count on a bit more accountability, too. That is the best case scenario, in my opinion. So we agree that's the goal. We apparently disagree on its desirability. Anyway, since you'd rather keep the files in the basement, here's what you can look forward to receiving next time you request some important documents and are lucky enough to get them (pic taken from a public records request made in LA).

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz subscribermember

David - your implication that I'm some sort of con artist looking to fleece the government is offensive and inaccurate. While I do an occasional government project, it is a tiny part of my business (less than 1%) and I regularly volunteer my time to try to improve technology in government. Further, there is nothing wrong with providing good technology to government or building a valuable business helping to take government data and make it more usable. As for the city data that's available, you might want to take a look at what New York City has done - having released over 2000 datasets on businesses, public safety, transportation, city services and much more. These data sets are being used by community activists, nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurs, and even within government. They're being used to improve communities, help businesses succeed, make government more efficient, and increase transparency. And, when done right, releasing data is absurdly cheap. I agree with you that we need to be careful about government waste. But open data is not a waste, open data is one of the best ways to identify the waste.NYC Open Datahttps://data.cityofnewyork.us/data

Seth Hall
Seth Hall memberauthor

Hi David. I look around at what other cities are doing with their open data initiatives and I, for one, buy into the hype, since I can see the completed products being hyped. We agree - this is about using tax dollars that are already spent archiving this data in antiquated, inaccessible ways and opening them up for people to create apps that would ideally generate revenue. Hopefully we can also count on a bit more accountability, too. That is the best case scenario, in my opinion. So we agree that's the goal. We apparently disagree on its desirability. Anyway, since you'd rather keep the files in the basement, here's what you can look forward to receiving next time you request some important documents and are lucky enough to get them (pic taken from a public records request made in LA).