4 Tenets of a Successful Open Data Plan

Los Angeles Chief Data Officer Abhi Nemani and San Francisco's Open Data Program Manager Jason Lally provide pointers for cities planning open data initiatives.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It was open data’s version of a Giants vs. Dodgers game on Monday, March 16, but without the rivalry: Innovation leaders from San Francisco and Los Angeles came together to talk open data strategy at the annual Health and Human Services Open Datafest.

Abhi Nemani, Los Angeles’ first chief data officer, and Jason Lally, San Francisco’s open data program manager, each recounted their city’s past data efforts, discussed upcoming projects, and delivered advice based on respective geographies, ultimately sharing four key tenets when it comes to open data initiatives.

1. Strategy

Cities looking to start an open data program should forego typical triages of data inventories and start with a city’s core objectives, said Nemani, formerly the co-executive director at Code for America, a civic tech group headquartered in San Francisco.

“I actually think you have to think about strategy, think about what are the big issues you want to take on and how are you going to take those on,” Nemani said.

In Los Angeles -- and across the state -- one core issue is water (or lack thereof). Nemani cited a Los Angeles Times article spotlighting the state’s dire drought, and suggested open data and apps around water conservation could be an example of how an open data strategy fulfills a need.

2. Relevance

Garnering attention -- by being relevant to potential users -- was also top of mind.

Nemani suggested identifying four demographics to keep in mind when tailoring open data portals: developers, journalists, citizens and researchers. When redesigning L.A.’s data portal
, these four end users were at the forefront, and it paid off. The portal's bounce rates  — the percentage of site visitors who exit a website after viewing only one page —  has gone from 50 percent to 4 percent after the redesign.

“This helps people put data to work,” Nemani said.

3. Community and Branding

Also of importance are key ingredients for civic hacking communities. This group should have a common identity or brand to rally behind, a common meet-up place, some form of funding to elevate open data projects beyond experimentations, and a “megaphone” -- what Nemani defined as media or leadership recognition for efforts.

4. Collaboration

In San Francisco, Lally’s advice took a retrospective approach, tracing footsteps of the city’s open data strategies  back to when Joy Bonaguro was first appointed as the city’s first CDO in February 2014.

Starting out, Bonaguro first did a citywide data assessment. She met with departments, received feedback from San Francisco’s civic technology community, and then outlined a strategic plan for the city that included department representatives as guiding contributors.

”There’s really only so much you can do by yourself," Lally said. "You really have to build coalitions within the city, and we’re doing that through our data coordinators."

This April, the city will unveil a revision to its open data portal, and publish a new inventory of San Francisco’s current data holdings. The collaborative work internally, Lally said, has primed everything for additional data sets and portal additions ahead.

“Really, it’s been about laying the groundwork so we can put on the gas come April, May and June, when we roll out our infrastructure,” Lally said.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.