Success with open data can be stress-free
By Maria MacGunigal
Sacramento is the capital of California, the vanguard state in technology and innovation. In that spirit, we are committed to transparency, accountability and citizen engagement in city government. In November 2013, we launched the city’s open data portal to give residents, visitors and businesses access to meaningful city data. Just four months later, Sacramento was ranked No. 2 in the U.S. City Open Data Census, which measures cities’ openness according to the number of datasets they have made available online.
Many cities and counties are waiting to open up government data out of fear of nightmarish complexity, untenable costs or manpower requirements.
Our experience was the opposite – it was fast, manageable, and did not require a huge budget to complete. Here is how we did it.
We took an organized, step-by-step approach to our open data project. We started simply, with datasets that were of most immediate value to our residents: 311 service requests, finance and budget, police department statistics, citywide contracts and building permit numbers, and left room to grow. We realized that we could launch the portal in incremental phases. Since the site’s launch, we have added 35 new data sets to the portal.
We were able to launch our portal in an efficient and affordable way by partnering with a commercial data management and visualization provider. We worked with cloud-based provider Junar, whose open data platform delivers information in a scalable, user-friendly format and offers data visualization as charts, in dashboards or in sortable spreadsheets.
The best part is that we accomplished our initial goal in only 6 months at a reasonable cost.
The concept of opening local government data might seem new now, but it is soon becoming the expected norm. While it is a giant leap forward – it’s nothing to be afraid of.
Municipalities that make public data accessible and usable have found many benefits. In our decision to launch a portal, we looked at several immediate and long-term returns:
Transparency and accountability: Philosophically speaking, government data belongs to the people. We wanted to live up to our commitment to openness and accountability to the residents we serve.
Citizen participation and empowerment: Sacramento is a team of nearly half a million residents who share a stake in the city’s success. The more we foster inclusion and involvement in city governance, the stronger and more cohesive that team becomes.
Local government innovation: Our city is full of brilliant minds and innovative ideas. When we open data to the people of Sacramento, residents use that data to come up with new, creative and better solutions to city challenges. We are planning a civic hackathon to invite third-party software developers to use city data to create tools that better the community. This potentially brings the public many benefits at very little cost.
Improved efficiency and effectiveness of services: Open data is one way to improve public service, for the simple reason that an informed public will hold government accountable and universal access to information drives efficiency of communication between residents and city services.
Reduced administrative time and costs: Our open data platform made sharing information easy and replaced the time-consuming manual administrative process of responding to individual requests for public records.
The exciting thing about Sacramento’s success in open data is that we are only just beginning. We solicit feedback from residents and software developers on additional data sets that they would like to access. Our cloud-based platform allows seamless and cost-efficient expansion of our portal. We regularly analyze which datasets are generating the most interest or producing tangible results.
Our open data portal will increasingly feed innovation as we partner with stakeholders in education, the business community and app developers. The more residents become aware of and engage with the portal, the more benefits the city realizes.
By starting small and taking the plunge into open data, we opened up a new highway between City Hall and the residents of this great city.
Any city or county that has been talking a “maybe later” approach to open data should consider that, today, the obstacles are few and the benefits are many. Our experience has shown that open data is a cornerstone to smarter, more connected local government.
Maria MacGunigal is the chief information officer for Sacramento and has over 20 years of experience in both public and private sector IT. She has a long history of public service and local government experience and has led many important technology initiatives. Recent achievements include a National award winning Open Data Portal, Data Center Modernization, 311 Mobility, revamped website and Enterprise IT Strategy.