SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — The Data Coalition, an advocacy group for widespread standardization and publication of government data, hosted its annual California Data Demo Day on Thursday, Oct. 19, featuring panels of experts who work for and with the state’s legislative and executive branches of government.
Lance Christensen, chief of staff for California Sen. John Moorlach, sat on the legislative panel and showed up with a whole bunch of paperwork: a couple of thick blue binders, some weighty reports, another book of rules that barely fit in a pocket. He plunked it all down on the table and told the civic tech vendors, lawmakers and policy wonks in attendance that the stacks contained important public info about California’s budget, info only available in outdated paper formats kept at the capitol in Sacramento. Essentially Christensen brought the props to show that despite California’s progressive values and booming tech industry, gov tech at the state level still has much room for improvement.
“If I were to say go find the budget, outside of a Google search, could you really find it?” Christensen asked the room.
He went on to note that if business owners, thought leaders or any other residents of California wanted certain budget info, “You have to drive to the capitol and spend a day picking this up.” He lifted a bulky binder to illustrate.
Indeed, a duality emerged throughout the event. Everyone in attendance — from government employees to politicians to technologists to lobbyists — voiced support for open data practices, while at the same time acknowledging that California could do a better job of execution.
That’s not to say no progress has been made in recent years. There was a sense of optimism in the discussions, a sense that state leadership is committed to doing its best to improve but is, of course, limited by challenges. The event’s keynote speaker California Sen. Richard Pan described how the failure of SB 573, which would have required the state to support open data and hire a chief data officer, had to do with politics but ultimately led to discussions that resulted in most of what the bill was asking for coming to pass, including the hiring of a chief data officer.
Pan also emphasized that the power of open data lies in not just transparency but also in its potential to improve efficiency within government.
“Through open data, we want to empower government to make decisions and see what the results of those decisions are on the public,” Pan said.
He said the best way to ensure that open data culture becomes entrenched in California is to develop better tools that the public will want to use to engage with government. Christensen, the chief of staff who brought all the papers, called for the public to show up at hearings, ask questions about why certain open data isn’t readily available and put videos of politicians answering on Facebook or other platforms where they can be shared.
Jan Ross, California’s deputy treasurer for technology and innovation, had the clearest examples of how open data practices in California are steadily improving, pointing to many of the open data and transparency efforts taking place within her department under the leadership of Treasurer John Chiang. Those efforts include the DebtWatch portal, which provides detailed information about $1.5 trillion of debt issued by state and local governments over the past 30 years.
It’s dry information, to be sure, but Ross talked about how citizens concerned with the government loaning taxpayer money in service of infrastructure and other projects could use the portal to see exactly where in their communities the money had gone, how it had made things better.
“You can see where this impacts your community and why you should care about it,” Ross said.
The challenges discussed included finances — especially for cities that did not generate as much revenue as major metros like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Another hurdle, experts said, is the sheer mass of data government collects, which can be cumbersome — as can finding ways for dozens of disparate public agencies to funnel that much data into a unified format.
“If the government chooses to publish its data, to standardize its data,” said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Coalition, “the tech community can do amazing things with it.”
Arguably, the best indicator for open data's bright future in California was the seemingly total acceptance that more gov tech companies are popping up with simpler ways to use tech to further open data uses.