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How Los Angeles CDO Lilian Coral is Building a Data-Sharing Culture

Much of Coral's focus is on spurring civic engagement, but she is also trying to build an internal culture of sharing data among departments.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

When Mayor Eric Garcetti was elected in 2013, one of his major goals was to make Los Angeles a smart city. That very year, he signed a landmark executive directive that established the city’s emphasis on data-driven policy and open data.

Since then, Los Angeles has delivered results on Garcetti’s smart city vision, including the creation of one of the most innovative government data portals and ever-increasing support for data-driven governance within city departments. Lilian Coral, who joined Garcetti’s team in 2015, first as Deputy Chief Data Officer until she was appointed Chief Data Officer last spring, has been integral to taking Los Angeles’ digital efforts to the next level.

Coral oversaw the implementation of the GeoHub, a map-based data portal that connects citywide location data and brings to life data previously stuck in spreadsheets. The portal is an ambitious attempt by the city to build on open data and develop more enterprise-wide solutions to manage the city’s wealth of data. The goal is to spur innovation and increase engagement, internally across city departments and externally with residents and entrepreneurs.

“With the GeoHub, there’s a strong focus on the back-end architecture that creates a more networked city that can share data seamlessly, as opposed to what we often see with open data portals, which can be point-in-time extracts,” Coral said during an interview at the Spring Convening of the Civic Analytics Network, a peer group of leading CDOs from U.S. cities.

The Hub has already proven to be a dynamic tool for city data; the city’s sanitation department used mobile video and photography to document illegal dumping, cleanliness, and worrisome waste sites street-by-street. That data was collected and mapped publicly on the GeoHub, with streets rated “not clean,” “somewhat clean,” and “clean.” After a year of data collection and mapping on the hub, Clean Streets LA saw an 80 percent reduction of streets deemed “not clean.” The Clean Streets mapping allows non-technical users and residents to monitor street cleanliness on the portal, and Coral has her sights on more opportunities to unlock the portal’s potential for civic engagement and allow residents to actively use the portal to address issues they care about in their neighborhoods.   

Open Data Portal as a “Workspace” for Citizens

Coral describes the GeoHub as “bringing the data to life,” but she wants the Hub to have more active, ongoing engagement tools so that citizens can “create a workspace to actually work on data.”

“We want to develop a truly public space within our open data ecosystem where public users manage their own accounts,” Coral said. “And then do one of three things with open data: (1) analyze the data for themselves, (2) collect community data they care about, (3) make easy web apps of resources are in their community or data they’re discovering, and (4) share with their community.”

Coral sees data accessibility for citizens and businesses alike as a major focus for her team going forward. The benefits of such functionality are clear, particularly when thinking about something like Clean Streets LA.

“Imagine if you, as a community member, could get that layer of data and then go and collect additional information and create your own survey tool,” Coral said, noting that the citizen input could add more context to the data collected by the sanitation department.

The combination of city and citizen data in one place could be a major driver for true civic engagement. “With community data you add a layer of context to all of our city services that enables Angelenos to engage in the community-building process with knowledge,” Coral said. “I strongly believe that community transformation is an iterative process and the more that we get community members engaging with data and sharing their insights, the more positive community change we will see in Los Angeles.”

“Evangelists” for city data sharing

While much of her focus is on spurring civic engagement, Coral is also trying to build an internal culture of sharing data among departments.

“There’s still a ways to go, but the way we’ve set about it is to set the expectation that data should be shared with the public. It’s an accountability issue, it’s a transparency issue,” Coral said. “So, if it should be shared with the public, why wouldn’t we share it amongst ourselves, why wouldn’t we help each other in providing city services?”

Her team, which consists of four staff members and a handful of interns, is focused on building the systems necessary to facilitate data sharing while simultaneously making the case for city departments to engage. “We’re all evangelists about why this is good and we look to create and support channels of communication,” Coral said.

This includes reaching out to departments to encourage publishing data on the portal and running a blog to tell stories about interesting uses of city data. The team created a dedicated open data email address that Coral said is often the source of “concrete, real-life” examples that can prove to departments just how useful their data can be, motivating them to share even more.

“It’s about building a culture of sharing,” Coral said. “Now, we get less resistance to sharing, and more questions of ‘how is this useful?’ and when you explain it to them, they’re actually very excited about their data being used.”

From Creating 211 from Scratch to Managing LA’s 311

Coral comes from a policy background, with a Master’s in Public Policy from UCLA, and describes herself as different than the typical CDO, with no lifelong pursuit of technical skills.

But when Coral was at the helm of a statewide nonprofit network in California that linked low-income individuals to community-based health and human services, she noticed a significant technology gap.

“I had to grow the network of 27 nonprofits in 31 counties, and when I looked at the challenge of growing that network and funding it, I saw that we were not leveraging data or technology in any way and that in fact we were not even marketable because no one was going to pay us to continue to do this model, especially when you saw that more and more people become very self-serviced with their phone, even homeless people in LA have phones,” Coral said.

Over her five years at the organization, she advocated for the use of technology and her efforts led to the creation of an integrated 211 telecommunication’s system for the community care network. At that point, Coral knew she had a knack for spotting similar technology gaps, and even though she did not come from a technical background, she was able to acquire the necessary skills along the way.

“I thought, if I could see this in this kind of middle public-private space, imagine what we need to do inside government,” Coral said. “I saw the gap and filled it and the technical skills I really learned on the job. I had to procure systems, I had to oversee the implementation from the top –by the end, I had the telecom and tech and data background needed to think through innovative solutions for the public sector.”

Coral sees direct similarities between data and policy, describing herself as a systems thinker and noting that she’s seeing more and more public policy schools feeding students into work around data and incorporating it in curricula.

“I was already thinking through systems reform, and technology is what can enable linking all of these systems together and creating new workflows and processes,” Coral said. “It’s exciting because I’ve been able to apply my policy background to how new technologies, and the data that is embedded within them, can transform the way cities help citizens, businesses and the environment thrive.”