The open data movement has taken government at all levels by storm. Early adopters were keen to publish anything and everything they could get online — the more data the better. But today the focus on telling a better story is one that has the attention of cities like Long Beach, Calif.
On Jan. 9, the city announced the culmination of eight months of conversations and planning in a platform that not only shares roughly 100 data sets, but also provides context around the information through a GIS mapping component. The tool is called DataLB. For city leaders, the portal equates to more than just a seat on the open data bandwagon; it represents a way to rally the already-engaged civic tech community around issues facing the municipality. “I think the important thing is that we want people to know that their government is transparent, that it’s thinking about the future, that civic tech is important,” Mayor Robert Garcia told Government Technology. The issue of how the recently passed 1 percent tax increase, Measure A, will translate out into the community is one aspect of how the city expects portal visitors to benefit from the open data resource. Garcia said he would like to see the community rally around the technology and use it to hold government accountable. “We want to make sure that people know where their money is going, which streets are being fixed, how their money is being spent," he said. "And as you can see by one of the features we have on Measure A, it really does a good job of that.” While Long Beach CIO Bryan Sastokas admitted that open data portals are hardly new and “sexy,” he said providing context around the data is the next step in the evolution of releasing information to the public. The Long Beach platform goes beyond what he calls the “bullets, buses and budget” of the city’s data stores. “With the GIS and the mapping, you are allowed to quickly tell a story,” Sastokas said. “Rather than just putting out the information and having someone clicking on things and downloading data, we can provide context around them.” Prior to launching DataLB, Sastokas said a collection of technologist and community advocates gathered to outline the polices that would govern opening the city’s wealth of information. From the crowdsourced beginnings of the lengthy undertaking to the final product, Sastokas said public engagement has been at the heart of the process. He hopes having the tools available will alleviate some of the heavy lifting typically required to dive into a city’s data sets. “There are a few data people out there that really understand what to do with all of that information. It doesn’t really tell the proper story. So if we can put it in a manner that allows a resident more information on how it affects them and what it does, that’s more impactful than the 5 or 10 percent [of citizens] that really know how to use and benefit from open data,” he said. “We want to target that other 95 percent of our community.”