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Palo Alto Proclaims Open Data as Default for City

Palo Alto signs proclamation establishing open data as the default practice for all city data.

Tonight, the city of Palo Alto, Calif., a city largely known as the epicenter of Silicon Valley, officially adopted an Open Data by Default proclamation to celebrate more than two years of data transparency efforts and to formalize the future practice of open data.

Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd read and endorsed the proclamation in front of public and city council members the evening of Feb. 3. The city hopes the proclamation not only points out a path to future open data efforts, but also becomes a catalyst for communities and cities to join the open data movement — an initiative to make government data public and machine readable.

“If we can inspire other agencies to do the same thing, that’s like gravy, that’s an amazing outcome,” said Palo Alto CIO Jonathan Reichental.

During the last two years, Reichental said the city has been actively engaged in various open data projects as a way to support the community with accurate and transparent municipal information. These projects have included the launch of its Open Data Platform, offering data across numerous city departments; the launch of Open GIS, a city data mapping site; and the launch of Open Budget, a site that offer’s city budget data through a five year time frame.

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According to a proclamation press release, Palo Alto has been recognized by California Forward, a group supporting state reform and improvement efforts, for its transparency. The Open Budget application received a state and national award, and the city’s open data efforts have helped secure its designation by the Center for Digital Government, owned by Government Technology's parent company e.Republic Inc., as the No. 1 digital city in America baed on population size.

In the past, Reichental said the city has not always been as engaged as it is now in open data and civic technology projects. However, city officials have bucked previous trends by engraving an open data mission into the city’s objectives and system of operations. A point to note: The decree does not come with punitive measures should a city department not adhere strictly to the policy. Instead, Reichental said its more of a middle ground, a way to slowly ease departments and officials into open data practices without spurring fears.

“First, we’re saying that [by adopting the proclamation] we’ve hit some pretty important milestones over the last two years and we want to acknowledge that. Second, it’s beginning a process of thinking about how you make this a sustainable part of how the city operates,” he said.

In the coming months, the city has ongoing plans to publish additional datasets to its Open Data Platform including data from the deployment of PaloAlto311, an app connecting city services to citizens. Further, Reichental said he imagines the data will be put to use through Palo Alto Challenge, a city mobile app competition, closing on Feb 28, that will generate apps to help community members.

“In many ways I am a big proponent of open data as a mechanism for better democracy, a richer more engaged democracy,” Reichental said.

Eventually, the long-term vision is for the expansion of open data to provide a bedrock for community dialogue, conversations where community members and public officials share vital information on the inner workings of the city, and as a result, produce a better decision-making process through collaboration.

“This is data that community members can look at and bring to council meetings so we can have really informed data-driven discussions,” Reichental said. “It’s really such an amazing win-win, and we’re only at the start of it.”

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