Close Encounters With Open Data

Close Encounters With Open Data

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Inside and outside of San Diego’s city government, advocates are asking departments to start releasing their information in a way that is clear, accessible and easy to analyze. That means departments have to start doing things differently after years of storing reams of paper in file cabinets. If you’ve cleaned out a garage at some point, you know that’s no easy task.

But this isn’t just a question of how the information is stored and organized. To do open data right, San Diego will have to give the public confidence that the information is timely and accurate. And it will have to make sure its employees are up to speed.

I posed these issues to Councilman Mark Kersey, Eric Busboom of the San Diego Regional Data Library and technology entrepreneur Ben Katz at a panel discussion hosted by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association Thursday. And although they said there were no easy answers, they believed the city could make open data work in collaboration with the community.

You can watch the full discussion online if you really want to nerd out. But here’s the abridged version of our conversation about how San Diego can clear the hurdles that lie ahead:

How Not to Repeat the City’s Bungled IT Strategy

Earlier this week, the City Auditor’s Office released a report that, in the politest terms possible, said the city has bungled online service delivery. If you want to pay a parking ticket or get a building permit, you should be able to go to the same place. But that’s not what’s happening in San Diego.

In the auditors’ words, “the city does not have a strategic direction or policy initiative,” and the services are “difficult to locate” and “incomplete.”

Here’s how Katz described the state of the city’s IT services:

There’s really a lot of things going, frankly, quite poorly in city technology. We have a real structural deficit in technology just as much as we have in our roads and, well, pretty much everything else.

Kersey cast the problem in even plainer terms:

Some of the stuff in there was pretty basic. Like all of the city’s online services that are available to taxpayers or people trying to get a permit or whatever should be in one section.

These are things the city should have been doing from the beginning with its online services. But the auditors found that city leaders had never accorded it much importance.

Still, Kersey sees an opportunity here:

I would say the only real advantage to being so far behind everyone else is that we can learn from what everyone else has done. And we can learn from our own past mistakes when it comes to IT services. But we can look at how other cities have handled this, other jurisdictions have handled this — what they’ve done right — and use that as a model.

Kersey developed a draft open data policy with Katz, Busboom and another local entrepreneur named Jeff Johnson earlier this year, and the group relied heavily on lessons learned from cities like New York that have strong policies in place.

But the city doesn’t have a policy in place yet — that likely won’t happen until next year — and it doesn’t have a point person to put it into practice yet. As a starting point, Busboom wants the city to start releasing the information it already has in a form that people can analyze with computer software:

We can take that data and do things with it. So what that means for the city is … just get stuff out. And the getting stuff out really isn’t that complicated. It involves a website where you put things — a data repository. You can buy that software. And the process is to ensure that the people who have useful things put it into a pipeline where it eventually gets to the website.

Busboom is already doing at the San Diego Regional Data Library with information he’s gotten from the San Diego Regional Association of Governments. “It shouldn’t be a large complicated system that could be bungled,” he said. “It really should be pretty straightforward.”

Bridging the Digital Divide

The digital divide is a phrase often used to explain the gap between what technology is capable of, and what people can do with it. Since San Diego failed to develop a strategy for basic online services, it raises questions about how prepared city staff are to open data in their departments.

An audience member submitted this question: “There are numerous staff at city agencies who really do want to help but there exists the ‘digital divide.’ Digital natives may not have access to upper management who will champion open data. How can open data be introduced in a vacuum?”

Here’s how Busboom responded:

That’s a question we’ve been pondering on a lot of fronts for a long time. I don’t know if it’s a different process than getting any other group to understand digital technology. In some cases, it’s not going to happen. Some people will never be comfortable with it. If you start with the base case that everyone wants to help, everyone wants to do the right thing, then you can work through those issues.

Kersey said a chief data officer could help facilitate that transition, and that’s why his draft policy calls for the appointment of one. But he made this assessment of the skill set of city employees who would be helping to open the data:

I think most of our city employees who work with this kind of data we’re trying to make open have some basic ability to have things in spreadsheets, for example, that could be accessed by everybody.

That’s not ideal. But, as Katz pointed out, employees who have deep knowledge of how the city works can be equally helpful when it comes to open data:

There’s lots of people who have huge, valuable roles to play that don’t write software, who don’t deal with databases all day. They may be usability experts. They certainly, in many cases, are the subject matter experts.

Number Fudging

Another audience member wanted to know how the city can ensure that all of the data it releases is accurate. How do you prevent someone from distorting or manipulating the data before it’s posted online?

The short, resounding answer: You can’t.

That’s why open data comes with fine print that says it may contain errors. But the panelists nonetheless said that timely and accurate data should be the goal. And flawed as it may be, data is helping governments and businesses solve problems big and small.

It could help us provide more efficient social services to the homeless and people with disabilities, Busboom said. Or, Katz said, it could help increase sales of a simple product.

“There was a classic study 10-15 years ago, about one of the little mini marts — it might have been 7-11 — found that putting beer next to diapers helped beer sales,” he said. “Which seems really obvious if you think about it, but at the time was a huge, exciting finding.”

Now, Katz said, data-driven solutions of all kinds are cheaper and much easier to apply.

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Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the Unified Port of San Diego. You can reach him directly at joel.hoffmann@voiceofsandiego.org.

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5 comments
Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson

I am presently working on a project in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, that is part of their move toward all electronic data interfaces for delivery of services. They have cultural challenges, just as we do in San Diego. Unfortunately it is not within the vision of the City Leaders to hire people such as myself and the international team that I work with to identify and implement solutions. Instead there is a high tendency to think that the answers are within the existing knowledge base.

Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson subscriber

I am presently working on a project in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, that is part of their move toward all electronic data interfaces for delivery of services. They have cultural challenges, just as we do in San Diego. Unfortunately it is not within the vision of the City Leaders to hire people such as myself and the international team that I work with to identify and implement solutions. Instead there is a high tendency to think that the answers are within the existing knowledge base.

Gaby Dow
Gaby Dow

Kudos to SDCTA, Councilman Kersey, Ben, Eric and Joel for a great session. It is refreshing to finally be having these important conversations at our city, with people who are truly literate on tech and municipal management guiding the discussion. The main thing I hope we all take away from these sessions is the fact that lack of data and technology to manage all fascets of city services is a huge disadvantage to our communities. We need the data to exist, to be tracked and used on a daily basis for informed budgeting and decision-making and then, yes, that data should also be easily available to the public who can also create solutions and entrepreneurial opportunities with the open data.

Gaby Dow
Gaby Dow subscriber

Kudos to SDCTA, Councilman Kersey, Ben, Eric and Joel for a great session. It is refreshing to finally be having these important conversations at our city, with people who are truly literate on tech and municipal management guiding the discussion. The main thing I hope we all take away from these sessions is the fact that lack of data and technology to manage all fascets of city services is a huge disadvantage to our communities. We need the data to exist, to be tracked and used on a daily basis for informed budgeting and decision-making and then, yes, that data should also be easily available to the public who can also create solutions and entrepreneurial opportunities with the open data.

Joel Hoffmann
Joel Hoffmann

Thanks for coming, Gaby. I would add that this discussion needs to be more broadly inclusive, too. Much as I like discussing this with people as smart as Ben and Eric and Mark, we're all white dudes. And it's really important to hear from people who aren't.

We need to be engaging communities that the digital divide has left behind regularly. The tools are there. They keep getting cheaper and easier to use. And it's critical that people who know how to use them show those who don't know how to use them yet.

That's why any event that we do next year will include some hands-on demonstrations.