California Lawmaker Pushes for State Chief Data Officer

California Sen. Richard Pan says data collected and stored by the state needs to be turned into usable information.

by Eyragon Eidam / August 26, 2015
State Sen. Richard Pan spoke to attendees about Senate Bill 573 at the California Data Demo Day at the State Capitol Wednesday morning. Eyragon Eidam

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lawmakers and experts spoke to the merits of open data legislation that would create a new state-level chief data officer during an event at the California Capitol Wednesday morning.

California Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, among others, addressed the need to streamline the state’s open data publishing efforts at the California Data Demo Day. The morning event was hosted by the Data Transparency Coalition, a trade group that advocates for publishing government data in open, machine-readable formats.
Pan spoke to his legislation, Senate Bill 573, which is scheduled for review by the Assembly Appropriations Committee Thursday. He said the proposal would be a necessary first step in organizing and implementing consistent open data policies throughout the state with the creation of a chief data officer.
Some have questioned whether the bill would simply add another layer of government bureaucracy, but Pan contends that the top data spot is essential to create a more homogenous information sharing environment.
“The chief data officer is not merely about having another bureaucrat. It’s about having leadership, creating that leadership in the state to be able to start implementing these policies cross agencies and across state government,” he said.
Pan told Government Technology that he does not see the proposed role slowing progress, but rather said it would be an opportunity to streamline systems in which data exists in a variety of sometimes ineffective mediums.
The lawmaker told event attendees that the state has a wealth of data that's not being put to good use in its current form and needs outside help to be turned into usable information.
“I’ve always said that in government we collect a lot of data for many different purposes, but … we usually don’t have the capacity or the ability to get it out to people. In fact, it’s a hidden treasure we need to make more available to the public, to entrepreneurs, to other people who can then turn it into useful information,” Pan said.
Ting, who authored the similar Assembly Bill 1215, said a focus on open data initiatives could prompt innovation that benefits both the government and California residents. 
He pointed to San Francisco, where the posting of public transit schedule data led to independently created mobile applications for riders.
“There are endless uses for this information. What we’ve found is that when people begin to actively access this data, they start to make interesting decisions, but they also make decisions that help government work much better and much more efficiently,” he said. “We know that a lot of times having that data out there and just sitting in a big pile is kind of worthless. We actually need to work together to be able to crunch that information to be able to digest it so that those of us who are just laypeople can actually use it in a way that impacts our daily lives.”
Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, said he hopes open data legislation in California will spur the kinds of successes seen on the federal level with the passage of the Data Act. 
Hollister said establishing a state chief data officer, as proposed in SB 573, would mean a better chance of open data policy becoming action.
“One thing that we’ve seen working across this country on open data changes is that if somebody’s in charge of something, it’s more likely to happen,” he said. “The federal government has never been able to function as a single enterprise because it’s never been someone’s job. For the first time, the Data Act makes it someone’s job to figure out those consistent data formats to bring spending together.” 
The single point of responsibility will help to drive the process of developing the state’s open data portal, Hollister said. 
“[Senate Bill] 573 doesn’t directly mandate open data for spending or regulatory reporting. It’s broader than that. It’s a statement by the state government that ‘open data is the way we’re going to do business,’ and it makes that transformation somebody’s job.” 
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