Sep 10 2015

In California, Cities Excel at Open Data Initiatives

Cities — not the state — are leading the open data charge.

As the home of Silicon Valley, California is viewed as a technology leader across the board. In reality, individual cities are doing a better job of fulfilling their open data initiatives than the state is. As a result, as it tries to keep up, the state is keeping a close eye on what’s being done in those cities.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Richard Pan introduced Senate Bill 573, which proposed the appointment of a chief data officer, who would be responsible for creating a statewide open data portal. The state’s Assembly Appropriations Committee shelved the bill last month due to concerns over potential costs, StateScoop reports:

The cost of Pan’s bill made lawmakers apprehensive. California already has a data portal set up at, but the process of converting much of the information on the site into machine-readable formats, as the legislation would call for, would have come at a price.

In a report to the Assembly’s accountability and administrative review committee, consultant Cassie Royce estimates that “costs to create a statewide portal could be as low as $125,000 to update the existing website,” but costs to employ the new CDO would’ve tacked on an additional $293,000 per year.

While some lawmakers saw these and other “unknown costs” associated with open data as obstacles, Assemblyman Phil Ting considered them a way for state government to function better. “Open data will breed these opportunities for us to improve our efficiency,” he told StateScoop.

Cities Are Making Open Data Work

Ting’s opinion was based on his experience as San Francisco’s assessor-recorder. According to StateScoop, sharing data about bus and light rail schedules led to an increase in public-transportation use. Ting said it allowed people to “weigh [their] options in real time.” Furthermore, StateScoop notes, other cities embraced the open data portal after seeing what happened in San Francisco:

On Aug. 6, Berkeley officially launched an open data portal, after months of testing it out with a pilot program.

“This is just clearly good government and we strive to be open and transparent,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko said.

According to IT Director Donna LaSala, the city started considering adding an open data portal in February 2014.

“We’d been hoping for a while that we could do it, but with years and years in cuts of staffing, it’s hard to start any new programs when you’re cutting and cutting,” LaSala said. LaSala estimated that the project required roughly 1,500 hours of work for the city to get things up and running.

California’s legislature goes on hiatus this week, so Pan’s statewide bill will be on the back burner until next year. Because the issues he hoped to address remain, there’s a chance he’ll reintroduce the bill. “We have lots of data out there, but until someone turns it into something actionable and usable, it’s not helpful,” he told StateScoop.

If he does revive the bill, making note of what worked in San Francisco and Berkeley might aid the effort.