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A Call for Local, Open Data

In order for all citizens to truly benefit from open data, every city, county, and state needs to make their data more accessible.

by Yo Yoshida / August 29, 2013
Contra Costa County fire departments launched the Pulse Point app earlier this year. Pulse Point

This past May, President Obama issued an executive order requiring that going forward, any data generated by the federal government must be made available to the public in open, machine-readable formats. And last week, White House officials announced expanded technical guidance to help agencies make even more data accessible to the public.

The steps that the federal government has taken in opening up its data are a good start—but it’s only a start. As former Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” In order for all citizens to truly benefit from open data, every city, county, and state needs to make their data more accessible. We’ve seen what happens when they do.

There have been a ton of incredible civic tools that have been made possible because of local open data efforts. Earlier this year, Contra Costa County in California launched the PulsePoint mobile application. The app notifies smartphone users who are trained in CPR when someone nearby may be in need of the lifesaving procedure.

Another great app out of Boston is the Adopt-a-Hydrant mobile application. The app maps out where fire hydrants are all throughout the city, so volunteers can help dig them out of the snow during the winter. This saves firefighters wasting valuable time hunting for these hydrants during fires. And what’s great about the app is it could work anywhere in the country, provided cities make their data accessible.

This past June, my company, Appallicious launched the Neighborhood Score app with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at the US Conference of Mayors (USCM) in Las Vegas. This one-of-a-kind app provides an overall health and sustainability score, block-by-block for every neighborhood in the city of San Francisco. Neighborhood Score uses local, state, and federal data sets to allow residents to see how their neighborhoods rank in everything from public safety, to quality of schools, crime rates, air quality, and much more.

We must go local with open data.

California Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom gets it. Earlier this year he launched the Citizenville Challenge — asking local leaders all over the country to take the pledge to create a government that works for the 21st century. Over 20 cities have already signed on.

It’s because of the ongoing efforts from leaders both in the private and public sector that civic startups all over the U.S. are able to create tools and resources like the life saving CPR app, an Adopt-a-Hydrant program, and Neighborhood Score. But we need more open data advocates in more cities, so that apps that work in one city can easily be brought to others.

When we launched Neighborhood Score in Las Vegas — mayors, department heads, and city staff members came up and told us that they wanted to bring this app to their residents, which is something we would love to do. But in order for that to happen, those same local officials need to advocate for open data policies. Until that happens, innovative citizens and civic start-ups will have a hard time providing those cities with apps that work in every city, because the information is simply not easily accessible.

Just as has promoted open data policies locally in San Francisco, there needs to be outside forces lobbying local leaders across the country to open up their data. The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) has mayors from over 1,300 cities as part of its network. The organization has been doing incredible work with local governments across the country for years. But, they could be an even greater resource – a place where cities could share ideas and best practices when it comes to open data. The USCM website could be a clearinghouse for local open data policies and help draft and push fundamental policy reform for local governments who want to bring openness and transparency to their cities.

Local leaders from all across the country need to start pushing for policies that allow innovative citizens and civic startups to provide residents with valuable tools to help them better understand and interact with their cities, not to mention improve government accountability and efficiency. The USCM can help in a big way.

Yo Yoshida is the Founder & CEO of Appallicious, a San Francisco-based open data and Government 2.0 company. This column was originally published on

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