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No Data Scientists? No Problem

Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental says making data available to the community is possible even when professionals and resources are limited.

by / May 6, 2013

A lack of staffing and resources may be a hurdle governments face when attempting to unlock city data sets, putting them in more transparent, readable formats for the public. But according to Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental, the government can look to alternative methods for liberating its data.

During a keynote speech Reichental gave in San Francisco on Friday, May 3, for BayNet – an organization of professionals and librarians in the Bay Area – he said government can be reinvented, even with its limitations.

“How can we reinvent government?” Reichental said. “Government needs the right people to analyze all this data to save money.”

To do this, Reichental suggested that governments and libraries partner with their local universities and other community organizations to recruit programmers that can help build Web application prototypes for accessing public data -- an approach Palo Alto took when the city wanted a new application for viewing street data.

Reichental said the city’s street data was not easy to look at and analyze, nor was it easy to access. As a result, the data was near meaningless, so the city partnered with Stanford University, whose students helped the city develop a street data Web application.

After a couple of weeks, Palo Alto had what it needed: an application that accesses street data through a search feature. Reichental said what normally would have cost $80,000 and a six- to eight-month procurement process was accomplished in a fraction of the time -- and was done so without paying costs beyond employee staff time.

Palo Alto StreetViewer, which launched in March, is still in beta, but it shows street scores (quality of pavement), mashes data with Google’s geo-engine, and shows a photo of the street that’s being searched.

According to Reichental, when a government entity needs application development, looking to the community for software engineers or “civic hackers” -- rather than outsourcing to a big software company -- is a good place to start, especially given the shortage in the data scientist profession. 

Hosting hackathons is another means governments can use to engage the public, and has been popular in recent years. On June 1 and 2, for instance, cities nationwide will participate in National Day of Civic Hacking. And organizations like Code for America pair civic hackers with cities to develop applications using public data. Web tools like Textizen, BlightStatus and Honolulu Answers have been developed as a result of the program. 

Free help may give cities the boost they need to get started on application development, but Reichental also warns that enlisting individuals like college students and members of the community to start the process means you can’t expect a completely finished project after they’ve done their part. Once the prototype is complete, it is the government’s responsibility to fine-tune the app and work out any bugs.

And while challenges will come with adapting and innovating in government, Reichental said big changes are expected to take place in the future -- and governments should take advantage of this change.

“We are most definitely at a point of inflection,” Reichental said. “Things are radically going to change in the next three to five years.”

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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