Sunshine Week: Experts Discuss Open Data Tech in California

Federal, state and local government officials discussed transparency projects and shared their thoughts on the future of open data at Data Summit 2015, in Sacramento, Calif.

by / March 19, 2015
Michael Chui, partner, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/BRIAN HEATON

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – While sharing financial records has helped many government agencies improve their transparency, more robust open data policies could lead to big financial gains in California and across the nation, according to experts at Data Summit 2015.

Representatives from both the public and private sectors gathered on Wednesday, March 18, at the second annual open data event held by California Forward, a government reform nonprofit organization. Their message was unified – the more governments invest in data proliferation, the more they can expect in citizen engagement and economic activity.

Michael Chui, partner at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) sees open data as a possible $3 trillion opportunity.

“We do think No. 1, that the importance of data for transparency, for good government, for accountability, is absolutely true,” Chui said. “We do think that there’s tremendous potential for data to improve economic outcomes as well. It’s not just jobs, it’s not just profits by companies … but also for benefits that we receive, not only as citizens, but also as consumers, as active parts of the economy.”

Chui added that MGI sees open data’s value being affected in four dimensions – accessibility, machine readability, cost and right to use. As those challenges are met, the value of data can soar accordingly. Governments can help by establishing a policy framework for open data and acting as a catalyst to encourage sharing.

Robb Korinke, a principal at GrassrootsLab who leads technology-focused government efforts for California Forward, noted that California has yet to adopt an open data policy. One is on the table, however – AB 1215 by Rep. Phil Ting, D-San Francisco – and Korinke encouraged attendees to support the measure, which would also enable Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint a chief data officer.

Jodi Remke, chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) spoke on the commission’s need to transition to a new state database that can provide easy access to campaign finance information. She explained that the FPPC has a lot of data that needs to be unlocked, but “is buried in clunky state databases.”

Mike Wilkening, undersecretary of program and fiscal affairs at the California Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), called himself a late “convert” to the open data movement. HHS has developed an open data handbook and created its own health data portal, which launched in August 2014. Wilkening said he envisions data sets being released “every month or two,” and expects the 12 departments within HHS to contribute in the years to come.

Establishing an open data culture and program takes time, Wilkening added. But he said it can be easier if agencies look to external sources for funding, involve dedicated people, and make sure it’s more than just one person driving the project. He noted that it’s a good idea to decentralize the effort and not make it “person-centric.” Because if that sole driver leaves, the program might crumble.

Wilkening also gave a few tips to help other agencies get started with their own open data programs:

  • Prioritize goals – make sure your wants are well-vetted and reachable.
  • Identify low-hanging fruit – success could hinge on getting those “quick wins” at the outset.
  • Ask the public – engage customers by asking them what they’d like to see on an open data portal.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel – take a look at what other cities and counties have done and replicate those successful moves.
  • Use what’s there – make sure to include data sources from different parent jurisdictions (state and federal governments).

A representative from Uncle Sam was also in the building – Robert Tse, a community planning and development specialist with USDA Rural Development. He called the future of California agriculture production to be technology- and data-based.

Tse also announced the “Apps for Ag” hackathon, which will take place on April 17-19, at West Hills College Coalinga, in Coalinga, Calif. Hackers and growers will unite to create open source apps to solve real problems in agriculture.

“Farmers are going to say ‘these are the problems I face, can you as a hacker help me write an app to solve those problems,’” Tse said. “We have literally no idea what’s going to happen.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.