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Top 3 Roadblocks to Data Transparency in California

State legislators and officials call out the problems and potential for state open data initiatives.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a presentation held March 1 during California Data Demo Day, which showcases state data transparency projects, California officials underscored a swath of technical and bureaucratic roadblocks still hindering digital efforts.

The commentary pointed to a litany of struggles as state legislators and administrators recalled past pursuits with open data. The speakers surfaced recurring issues in funding, infrastructure and culture change while calling for continued vigilance in modernizing state services.

1. Return on Investment

Funding constraints have always impacted state IT initiatives, but Jan Ross, deputy treasurer for technology and innovation, said the limitations only escalate when petitioning legislators to fund digital transparency.

Speaking for the administration of State Treasurer John Chiang, Ross said that in Chiang's former role as California controller, he developed a series of open data projects to track state salaries, compare city budgets and analyze school tax revenues. Each of the projects had to be paid for through redirected funding from the Controller’s Office without additional aid from the state.

"What is challenging is trying to convince any of the legislators at the capitol that there should be funding for this," Ross said. "It's very difficult to quantify the return on investment for a more engaged citizenry, or a more informed citizenry."

She added that many state offices, while supporting open data, have slim budgets and are wary to redirect funds away from mission critical services — especially if they can’t see tangible and immediate results. To get around the impediment, she and fellow panelists, proposed tying digital transparency projects directly to internal efficiency. This, they suggested, could be done with data analytics that cut costs with reduced work loads and added fiscal oversight.

2. Culture Change

Though many IT leaders call for technocractic “culture change,” they often fail to define the ambiguous term. Data Demo Day panelists, however, singled out a list of operational and behavioral challenges obstructing progress. Chief among these was a stigma toward added public accountability. While not necessarilly nefarious in nature, panelists listed multiple occasions when departments and legislators needed encouragement, and a little cajoling, to put their data online.

Recalling Chiang’s Trackprop30 app to monitor revenue from Proposition 30 — a tax raise passed in 2012 to temporarily prevent education cuts — Ross said that even with the right to compel community colleges and school districts to submit spending data, certain cases proved difficult. Some jurisdictions delayed submissions, while others ignored requests altogether.

"We had a bit of a challenge persuading all of them that it was in their best interest to put this information together …,” Ross said. “It was a bit of a challenge until the media got ahold of it and sort of created their own wall of shame."

District 55 Assemblymember Ling Ling Chang said she’d run into the same trouble when carrying a bill in 2015 to require live video streaming for certain state meetings. Despite providing evidence the measure would be cost neutral, legislators balked and dismissed Chang’s bill as too expensive to implement, estimating annual costs at $5 million. Chang had her staff show how Twitter’s streaming app Periscope could be used to broadcast the meetings for free.

“This is what I thought would be a pretty commonsense bill,” Chang said. “Yet it was a surprisingly uphill battle and the bill ultimately did not pass."

Tech education was another aspect of needed culture change. The panel said there are senior state officials who aren’t familiar with some of the new technologies, and this becomes a stumbling block for legislators voting on technology bills and the staff members who have to implement them.

Justin Erlich, a special assistant to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, said that when launching OpenJustice, a data transparency platform for criminal justice launched last year, his team overcame a number of typical setbacks through leadership support from Harris. He said his team practiced “responsible transparency” by publishing only pertinent — and not raw or personally identifiable — data, in addition to starting with a minimum viable product and scaling up afterward.

3. Infrastructure

Infrastructure was also a prominent roadblock. District 77 Assemblymember Brian Maienschein recounted a data gathering project he coordinated on homeless services while a member of San Diego’s City Council between 2000 and 2008. Maienschein said he had the long and laborious task of collecting data from the 40-plus government and non-governmental agencies supporting homeless residents. Some didn’t have data, others had it in different formats, there were no standards to speak of, and most didn’t communicate with each other. Maienschein said after the work was completed, he presented it to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and was shocked to learn it was the most comprehensive data set for homeless service providers in the country.

“It kind of scared me a little bit, because there really isn't a good way to measure what we we're doing in San Diego County with other places on homelessness,” Maienschein said.

These issues of data silos and unstructured data reverberated throughout the discussions.

Phillip Ung, the legislative and external affairs director at the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), said his agency is dealing with the challenge as it works to revamp CalAccess, the FPPC’s central database where all state campaign financing and lobbying information is stored.

"Right now — in its current form — it is nearly impossible to navigate and do some of the data work that people are interested in doing," Ung said.

Ung said the FPPC is working with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to complete a massive system overhaul with open data in mind. Journalists and citizens constantly file public record requests to the FPPC for information about public officials' investments, monetary holdings, conflicts of interests, gifts and travel expenses. Ung said the vision is to turn its database into a consolidated system of information that allows citizens to search for a public official by name and get all their publicly disclosed information. At present, this has to be done by opening roughly 20 browser tabs in Chrome.

To create enduring IT infrastructure investments, he cautioned attending offcials to research solutions intensively, consider off-the-shelf solutions from private-sector vendors, and to request financial support from the legislature with compliance and efficiency in mind.

"I think a lot of these spectacular [IT infrastructure] failures were perhaps systems that were created without much thought, things that were never created before, and things that were proprietary technology," Ung said.

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