Ratna Amin: Open Data is SO Oakland

27 Apr

This guest post was written by Ratna Amin  (@ratnaamin), an urban planner, former Oakland City Council staffer, and Government 2.0 explorer. She is organizing OakX (@Oak_X) – a collaborative effort to grow civic innovation (email: oakXinfo [at] gmail.com).

Should the City’s data be free? The Oakland City Council will decide this Monday night on an Open Data Resolution, which would liberate City data from paper and PDF and make it readable by civic web sites and smartphone apps. The resolution, first proposed by Council Member Libby Schaaf, has been watered down and delayed – yet Open Data is the key to unlocking incredible assets.

What is Open Data? It is government sharing data with the outside world, in a format that computers can read. Anyone can use that data to inform citizens, engage communities, and help government do its work. Open data is typically used on web sites or smartphone apps. What kinds of government data? All kinds: public facility locations, job listings, crime data, meeting schedules, street sweeping schedules, test scores, transit schedules, wastewater data, anything.

Earlier this month, at the 55-country Open Government Partnership meeting in Brazil, Hillary Clinton stated that she and President Obama “believe that countries with open governments, open economies, and open societies will increasingly flourish. They will become more prosperous, healthier, more secure, and more peaceful.” Oakland should comprehensively embrace open data, a City with a legacy of supporting citizen participation and openness. A few other reasons open data should thrive here:

1. Open Data is like free money. Oakland has a budget crisis. We will never meet our Citywide challenges and goals until we fully use the power of the Web and open data to increase efficiency. Open data creates value by leveraging private talent and resources, improving budgeting and decision-making, and growing political support for government. All this for the cost of putting numbers into computer-readable files. The data is fuel to power an underutilized group of Oaklanders — hackers, designers and makers looking for signs that the City supports their work.

2. Tech made by others is better. Public agencies, including the City of Oakland, rarely build great technology, so why not let others do it instead? Oakland Crimespotting was one of the earliest uses of open data in Oakland. It was developed and maintained for free by some of the best data visualization and mapping experts in the world who felt like the City’s Crimewatch could be improved upon. How is that not a win-win? The Bay Area is the center of the civic hacker movement, host to Code for America, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, Stamen Design, among many others (Civic hackers are people who develop public/community technology). Oakland is sitting among an embarrassment of tech riches; other Cities would do anything to have access to this much talent and civic engagement willing to help on city issues for little to no cost.

3. Open Data makes life better. Open Data actually improves productivity for City workers — a substantial amount of a knowledge workers’ time is spent looking for information and performing duplicate tasks. Making data accessible saves public money on consultants, technology and public outreach. Apps built on open data also improve communities, like the award-winning bilingual Mi Parque app built for the community using a new 23 acre park in Chicago. BART, another Oakland institution, has embraced open data, and now offers 25 third-party (someone else made it) apps for iPhone alone. Civic Commons, a clearinghouse for open data apps now hosts 584 apps from 186 cities. Oakland has one app so far – txt2work (which won 3nd place in the national Apps for Communities Challenge last year).


4. Open Data is pro-entrepreneur. Civic hackers like to build solutions, designers like to make delightful products, entrepreneurs like to create businesses. If they can’t pursue their passions here in Oakland, they will do it elsewhere, as they have for years. The philanthropic and venture capital communities have already recognized the value of open data – Google recently invested $1.5 million to grow tech businesses that are based on open data and the MacArthur foundation offered $50,000 in prizes for apps built on 200 Chicago data sets.

5. The future of government is here. Transparency, openness, co-creation, hacking and making are the new way of life in public institutions across the world. Once the City of Oakland’s data have been set free, the City can move on to other wonderful Government 2.0 opportunities like crowdsourcing, better utilizing cloud computing, and using new creative problem solving methods like design thinking. Oakland’s public leaders might not have the time or interest to become open government experts and hang out with civic hackers. That might have been okay in years past but it’s time to evolve.

As Jen Pahlka, Oaklander and founder of Code for America said, “There is a certain generation who have grown up being able to mash up, to tinker with, every system they’ve ever encountered. So they are meeting their relationship with government in a new way, with a new assumption: We can fix it.”

While citizens want to interact with government in a new way, government officials are often reluctant to try something new. At last week’s City Council Committee hearing on the Open Data Resolution, Council Members Jane Brunner and Desley Brooks objected to asking city staff to promote Open Data, and instead asked for a study of the costs to City staff of releasing information to the public. Open Data is so Oakland. Cynicism, insularity, and politicizing good ideas are also so Oakland. Which Oakland is better?

The Oakland City Council will take up the resolution to explore an open data policy at its meeting this Monday, April 30th. To express your support, please comment below or contact the council members:

Rebecca Kaplan, At-Large
RKaplan@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7008

Jane Brunner, District 1
JBrunner@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7001

Patricia Kernighan, District 2
PKernighan@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7002

Nancy Nadel, District 3
NNadel@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7003

Libby Schaaf, District 4
LSchaaf@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7004

Ignacio De La Fuente, District 5
IDeLaFuente@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7005

Desley Brooks, District 6
DBrooks@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7006

Council President Larry Reid, District 7
LReid@oaklandnet.com or 510-238-7007

6 Responses to “Ratna Amin: Open Data is SO Oakland”

  1. MarleenLee April 27, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    It would be helpful to actually have an example of the type of information a citizen would be seeking, and how they could access that information if “open data” actually existed. Sometimes something sounds great in concept, but in practice, it wouldn’t work. You say “crime data” would be available using this “open data’ concept. Well, it already is supposed to be available. And the problem is, it is frequently wrong. Alternatively, the data is so convoluted or complicated to access that it is meaningless. If I wanted to find out, for example, whether residential burglaries had increased in my beat year to date, the current “data” available on City websites makes this virtually impossible. The ordinary citizen would have no idea how to actually access or make use of the data.

    Another concern I have is that the City would use this “policy” to avoid having to actually respond to public records requests. For example, if I send a public records request to the City, they could send me a reply saying,”that data is available through our open data website.” And then I’d be lost and wouldn’t have any of the documentation I was seeking. If the City were truly committed to transparency and openness, they would comply with the Public Records Act, which they routinely do not.

    • Spike April 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

      Marlene- very good points, no arguments from me on the truth and relevance of those issues. Here’s my take on them:

      Examples of the use of opendata
      * If you want to site a new business in Oaktown- you wuold be able to quickly and simply find, map, download and analyze the data on all business permits to see the nearby competition, areas with gaps in similar services, access building permits to see any possible new developments in areas of interest, compare the crime data to see if the spot you are interested in is “safe”, access blight and vacant property data to see just how maintained the area is too. In SF, NYC, Chicago and Seattle that’s all possible on their opendata portals.

      Data quality
      * Hells yeah. Huge problem. One aspect of opening up public data (as the city started to do in drabs for last years Code for Oakland hackathon), is that we realize much of city data is in crappy shape, or plain wrong. That presents an opportunity for residents, coders, analysts to notify the city, help fix it or just require it to get fixed- the net result here is that the city ends up with better data to make decisions from. Again, hopefully.

      Accessibility
      * Many of the portals built allow fairly novice users to do some level of analysis with city data. We’ve done something similar with http://www.infoalamedacounty.org – making public data fairly usable.

      PRA
      * Having an opendata policy SHOULD lead to more honest open government. Should. Or it can be a token effort. In actuality any PRA requests that hit the city should and can be published on the opendata portal- so any other residents can see the incoming and the results also- it can save huge amounts of time to not repeat the same requests, and it helps to see what other residents are asking for. For me, starting with opendata makes it harder for officials to start to back down from becoming more open. They will try I’m sure. I’ve not seen other cities use OpenData as a ruse to block actual PRA compliance. Yet…

      There’s plenty of room for this to get mangled, but for now I’m hopeful that it can happen and can contribute to some positive change for once.

  2. susan mernit April 27, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    Great post, Ratna! Rebecca, thanks for getting this up. BTW, Rebecca, any interest in adding Oakland Local to your blog roll?

  3. dto510 April 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Ratna thanks so much for writing this and for your advocacy of civic innovation! Let’s hope the Councilmembers stop playing politics and pass the important resolution introduced by CM Schaaf.

  4. smurgel April 28, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Thank you for posting this, Ratna! It’s a wonderful idea and it would be a huge mechanism for facilitating dialogue between citizens and the local government. The usages are quite diverse: using a smart phone with geolocation capabiltiies to snap a photo of a pothole and upload it so that the city could prioritize its efforts based on patterns. Same for urban blight. Same for suspicious activity. Many of our local neighborhood groups do this in an ad-hoc way through Google Docs, Yahoo Groups and Facebook to great results, but since the access isn’t standardized across areas, it makes it difficult for the local government (OPD in particular) to identify commonalities and properly forecast as a result. I am thrilled that this might be a possibility. I’m looking forward to the first app.

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