In San Jose, Calif., the City Council and the CIO are working towards opening up city data. On Aug. 13, the City Council will discuss the creation of an open data platform, which includes a “chess clock” software program intended to create accountability and transparency in the city permitting process.

Led by City Council members Sam Liccardo and Johnny Khamis, the city would team up with community partners Code for America, Hackers & Founders San Jose and SVG Partners on the effort. The group hopes an open data platform will will help make the permitting process more efficient, but that's just the first step.

“I think this is a small investment for a very large gain,” Liccardo said. “My ambition is that this is just the first step in what will become a more robust open data platform to leverage the creativity of the technologically-savvy community in which we reside to make City Hall more effective and responsive.”

Liccardo's office receives regular complaints from small businesses about delays with their permit applications. But approving and denying permits isn’t just the city’s job, he explained. It’s also to the city’s benefit to see local businesses succeed and not get held up by administrative processing delays.

“When you file a permit application, it just disappears into a black hole and if you don’t get any response, you don’t know who to call, where it is in the process or when it’s likely to emerge,” he said. “So the first part is very simple. We just need to track where every document is going, every application is going, and be able to identify at which desk it’s set and for how long.”

Seeing where things are getting stuck is the first step toward speeding up the process, Liccardo said. “Step two is an open data platform and the notion is that once we gather all this data, we release it to the public,” he said.

Open data has been embraced by government entities around the country. Engaging local startups and developers has allowed cities to benefit from their talent, using pubilc data sources. In the process, agencies can provide the public with new services, while incubating local tech businesses. An open data platform, Liccardo said, could allow developers to create smartphone apps the public can use or harness city data in other useful ways.

“They may in fact find ways to automate the process so people don’t have to come down to City Hall at all and simply get things done online. All of that is possible if we make this data available to the public and engage folks, whether it’s through a hackathon or through any other process to leverage the creativity of the community that’s all around us,” he said.

This is not a new concept, Liccardo said, and he’s been trying to get something like this started for five years. But this time, it looks like open data in San Jose has the support it needs to become a reality. In the past, some have objected to an open data platform and process-tracking software because the city didn’t have the resources to complete such a project.

“We don’t have enough resources to continue to do business as we’re doing it today," he said, pointing to the staff hours wasted across departments trying to pinpoint status information on permits for constituents. "We can be much, much more efficient and this is an effort to leverage technology to improve our efficiency,” he said.

It’s not just the City Council and the Planning and Building department’s IT staff that have an eye on open data, San Jose CIO Vijay Sammeta said, but the whole city. “It’s a high priority. I think it helps us be accountable to the public. Also, it’s the next generation of civic transparency,” he said. “Our goal is to, much like the federal government, not just put out something that’s one-time in nature, but really manage that data feed so that it’s sustainable.”

Sammeta’s office is looking to focus on areas where open data can be used for quality of life improvements and economic development. Starting next January, the city plans to begin releasing its first data sets as they work with departments to find ways to make sharing data a natural part of the work process.

“From the IT perspective, once we deep-dive into their system and look at not only the technology but the business process around those workflows, I think we’ll have a better handle around that,” Sammeta said.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog.