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.

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You’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 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 or via Twitter: @loteck.

Seth Hall is co-founder of the community group San Diego Privacy, which is a member of the TRUST SD Coalition.

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