The Unexpected Virtues of Open Data

Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County
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Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County

Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County

County governments are unique institutions that serve a large and diverse geography and population with local services. The County of San Mateo is no exception – as the County’s municipal agency, we provide a range of services around public safety, health & welfare, parks & recreation, tax collection, elections, and a whole lot more. The Information Services Department (ISD), the division within the County which I lead, is charged with improving our government by building stronger connections among our stakeholders – County departments and employees as well as our residents.

"The Open Data Portal was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate where the County was spending these funds, and the impact that these investments would have"

Our County has been on the forefront of the Open Data movement spreading among local, regional, and national governments around the world. The impetus for the movement was transparency – we utilize taxpayer money to fund public services, so our use of that money and the outcomes achieved should all be open and available for anyone to see. It seemed only obvious that we take all of this publicly available information (which previously was only obtained through cumbersome information request processes) and make it easily accessible. Our Silicon Valley mindset in part has fueled our desire to provide a place online where the public would be encouraged to explore a wealth of information about the County’s activities, services delivered, and money spent.

Launching our Open Data Portal (https://data.smcgov.org/) was a natural extension of the performance reporting that the county had already been doing for the last 15 years – we were essentially just moving those reports online. Additionally, frequently requested data (e.g., salary information, expenditures, etc.) were also natural candidates for inclusion in the Portal. Also, in 2012 county voters approved a sales tax initiative (Measure A) to fill critical service needs in public safety, youth services, health, housing, and a number of other important areas. The Open Data Portal was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate where the County (or non-profit organizations who were recipients of Measure A grants) was spending these funds and the impact that these investments would have.

There were a number of challenges in getting started with our Open Data initiatives, including technical, operational, and organizational. Many folks didn’t understand exactly what Open Data was, how it would impact their work, or the fundamental value of the initiative. The process began with our County Board of Supervisors directing me, and our County Manager to develop an Open Data Policy and Reporting Prcess and to form a cross-departmental Open Data Committee. We quickly realized that we needed to hire dedicated resources to ensure that we created the best technical architecture, built appropriate partnerships, and supported all departments in both publishing and using data. There was much coordination work among departments to ensure review of data sets, and compliance with existing policies governing public records and legal requirements.

There has been much progress in the last two years. The Portal continues to grow with currently 282 data sets, covering areas such as the environment, recreation, social issues, business information, and much more. The system allows users to search for data as well as visualize data in charts, graphs, and maps. Users can comment on datasets and suggest new datasets to add, and developers can build applications that leverage the data using the County’s Open Data API. The Portal is being used both internally among County employees as well as by the general public. Much of the internal use has centered on areas of expenditures and job classification while a number of interesting case studies have evolved with a more general community interest:

• Beach and Creek Monitoring – weekly bacteria monitoring for 38 beaches and creeks in the County to warn users about potential exposure
• Restaurant Health Inspections – see summary of health inspection issues at restaurants
• County Park Trailheads – crowd-sourced information on trailheads and facilities
• Homeless Census – Geo-located, collection of information on county homeless population
• Hack SMC – civic hacking competition to leverage Open Data to build new innovative solutions
• ReportIt! SMC – crowd-sourced information on illegal dumping with visualizations for tracking hot spots

There are certainly some ongoing challenges as we grow the Open Data Portal and evangelize its use, technical and organizational. Fundamentally, it requires a mindset shift (and additional work) by each of the County’s departments to think of everything they do as data, whether it be goals and performance measures, activities, processes, communications, outcomes, financial results, empirical measurements, or information solicited from stakeholders.

We believe that this shift will, in part, be fueled by the surfacing of the unexpected benefits of our Open Data program. Although transparency is integral to our mission as a public agency, the greater benefit of the program may be in two other areas. First, we see improved engagement with the residents we serve. The Open Data Portal has helped shine a light on services which otherwise would have been more in the background for our residents. Secondly, County Departments have been able to leverage Open Data to highlight and improve their own internal service delivery issues. Any activity to improve service delivery will create data, and County teams can use this data to help optimize their internal operation. And because this data is public, departments can then show, via key metrics, how the service is improving. So although there is a public benefit to the transparency, the greater benefit may be the operational one – a lesson relevant not just to governments but to private or non-profit organizations as well.

The Open Data initiative has been a monumental undertaking for the County, involving buy-in from multiple stakeholders inside and outside of the organization. However, even with a relatively modest investment, its value has become self-evident, and we are certain it will continue to grow with more publishers and users of information. We further expect that because of the ability for anyone to connect otherwise disparate sets of data, new unforeseen and innovative solutions will emerge that will improve decision-making and empower both our employees and our constituents. Transparency remains critical as it promotes accountability and engenders greater trust with our community, but the surprising benefit of the Open Data program has been the promise of improving the efficacy of fulfilling our mission.

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