Open Data Event Draws Lawmakers, Startups and City Officials

Proponents say public data drives better government and economic growth.

An assorted lot of legislators, entrepreneurs, city officials, educators, journalists, lobbyists and civic hackers gathered Thursday for the California Forward Summit on Public Data, an event that drew players from both the private and public sectors to speak in support of open data.

The summit, held at the University of California Center in Sacramento, Calif., coincided with National Sunshine Week, held March 17-21, that celebrates and promotes the freedom of public information. Speakers focused on current developments in open data, its challenges and noticeable trends.

Dialogue at the event focused on public-private partnerships that are aimed at solving civic challenges. Cost reduction, more innovative service delivery and better public engagement were some open-data benefits mentioned during the half-day event.

Here are a few highlights:   

Data equals jobs -- Lenny Mendonca, co-chair of California Forward, kicked off the morning with a chronological look at open data. Previously, open data efforts focused largely on elections and campaign financial disclosure, he said. Now governments are recognizing, albeit gradually, that open data can drive real economic benefits like job growth, entrepreneurial business development and data-driven financial management. Pointing to California's wealth of technology experts, Mendonca said open data projects have the potential to create positive reforms in education, transportation and government.

Dollars that Make Sense – Nate Levine -- co-founder of OpenGov, a cloud platform that analyzes government budgets in a user-friendly way -- won praise from a number of his fellow speakers at the event for bringing clarity to government spending. OpenGov connects directly to government databases and interprets a vast sum of financial data into easily readable charts, graphs and tables. According to the OpenGov Web site, the service is being deployed in 44 jurisdictions.

Engagement that Scales – Citizen engagement was a challenge that punctuated the dialogue throughout event. California State Assemblyman Phil Ting criticized current methods for gathering citizen feedback as outdated and ineffective. Public meetings, he said, limit attendance and comment to either the politically invested or those with flexible schedules. Ting said he’s currently engaged in an effort to allow public testimony to be reviewed online through Skype or other digital methods. In 2010, Ting launched Reset San Francisco, a website that encourages citizen engagement on city issues.

An MBA in Civic Tech? – Will Semmes, associate program chair of the California College of the Arts, announced the school is planning a new MBA in Public Policy Design with a curriculum that is tailored to civic tech entrepreneurship and service. Inspired by civic tech startups that answer urban problems, Semmes said the curriculum teaches analytics, open data use, social enterprise skills, coding, app development and a variety of methods to work with government jurisdictions. The college is taking applications for the program now and is seeking additional instructors for the launch.

Data Tips from San Francisco
– San Francisco’s newly appointed Chief Data Officer Joy Bonaguro was the last speaker to make an appearance. Reflecting on her decade of data work, Bonaguro offered pointers for citizen hackers and public officials involved in data transparency projects. On behalf of civic hackers, she reminded government officials how transparency in data can leverage public observation to improve behavior in government management. On behalf of officials, Bonaguro argued that open data must be balanced with context that communicates how it’s gathered and used, otherwise it can be misleading and even kill projects before they start. As a collaborative venture, she encouraged data transparency advocates to draw on each other as tools for civic good.  

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