Los Angeles is taking open data seriously. Former Code for America co-director Abhi Nemani will become the city’s first chief data officer on Sept. 2. Charged with operating the city’s open data portal and improving citizens’ quality of life through the innovative use of data, Nemani will draw on nearly four years’ experience driving civic innovation at Code for America.

Looking forward to his starting date, Nemani shared with Government Technology his thoughts on the open data movement and how he plans to make data a transformative force in Los Angeles.

“I think there’s two big priorities we want to see happen in the city and frankly they’ve already started happening,” Nemani said. “First is use open data to make L.A. more of a platform.” Cities can use open data to become a platform that citizens, civic hackers, and technologists can build upon, he said. For example, San Mateo County, Calif., released through Code for America an API in 2013 called Ohana. Launched as a tool to help in the search for citizen services, the software enabled outside groups to build upon that work through the creation of mobile web interfaces, new apps and ideas.

“So first you see a really important civic tool and then you see a community being built around it,” Nemani said. “I want to solve problems that people have in their lives in the city and I think data can help us do that. Technology can help us do that and we’re seeing examples of those across the country.”

The second priority is around Mayor Eric Garcetti’s mission of getting back to basics, Nemani said. “[It’s] using data as an asset for the city to run more efficiently,” he said. “Data internally can be used for analytics, for performance management, for tracking, and one thing I think we can do within L.A. is really bring to bear all the data the city has to help drive data-driven decision making and data-driven policy.”

To be successful as a chief data officer, Nemani said he will start by doing more listening than talking as he builds the city’s open data portal. “I’m going to listen and go around and find out what are the data sets that are really interesting and what are the opportunities and also listen to citizens as well. ... One thing I firmly believe is that the data we’re opening up to citizens [should be] valuable, important, and good.”

Smart Chicago Collaborative Executive Director Dan O’Neil recently called for more product development around open data. O’Neil said he wanted to see more creative thinking around the data sets that are already available rather than a blind push toward data releases without any plans to make the data valuable. Nemani shared a few such ideas in a blog post in June entitled Ubers as Ambulances?

Uber could be used for emergency service or flu shot delivery, AirBnB could be used in disaster response, Kitchit could be used for meal delivery for the elderly, and 311 could use crowdsourcing services like Task Rabbit, Nemani wrote.

“The question for us moving forward is how do we derive more impact out of this data?” Nemani said. “How do we make sure that the data sets don’t just sit on the data portal without usage but get in the hands of people that really need it, be it city officials trying to make smarter decisions or citizens wanting to build apps and tools?” With an open data portal already hosting more than 200 data sets, an active civic hacker community, and a Code for America presence, Los Angeles is well positioned to break new ground in open data, Nemani said.

“Open data as a movement within government is in a great place right now and I’d say a very exciting and promising place,” he said. “You’re seeing more governments than ever start to launch open data portals, more data sets on a daily or monthly basis being opened. So you’re seeing momentum start to shift from ‘well, we don’t know if we can open up data’ to ‘we should do this and in fact we’re going to.’ To me that signals an inflection point that’s valuable and important to us as a movement.”

Los Angeles Chief Innovation Technology Officer Peter Marx said Nemani is current, dedicated, enthusiastic and exactly what the city needs right now. “To have a human being whose mission it is to find data from around the city and to make it available to outside innovators and users and students and academics and everybody is exactly what we need,” Marx said. “It’s totally to the spirit of where Los Angeles is going.”

Los Angeles is pursuing open data, open government and innovative new technologies as cutting edge as interconnected or self-driving vehicles, Marx said. “We’re also looking into using the smartphone and the Internet to make the city into a better user experience and a lot of that is data driven,” he added. A task as minor as looking for a parking space is an example of something the city can use to make big change, Marx said.

“If drivers and eventually automobiles have that data readily available to them, they can reduce the amount of time they spend searching for parking spaces,” he said. “It’s a data issue. The parking spaces need to be broadcast as being available and that data needs to be distributed to people who are looking for the parking space. If you match the two up together, then you do all sorts of good things. You make the user experience better, you reduce the amounts of things like greenhouse gases, improve sustainability; you reduce traffic.”

Once a core member of Code for America, Abhi knows exactly how to get people thinking about problems, spur innovation in government and make communities better, Marx said. “We really want that kind of energy,” he continued, “and Abhi has a proven record of encouraging people to come work with their city to do interesting work and to drive innovation.”

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.