San Francisco: Driving the boundaries of open data

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)
Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

During last week’s 2013 Code for America summit at the Yerba Buena Center, officials from cities including Louisville, New York City, South Bend and New Orleans spoke about how open data had changed the complexion of their communities in public safety, citizen services and blight mapping.

Later this month, San Francisco’s Committee on Information & Technology will debate an amendment by City Supervisor Mark Farrell that beefs up the city’s groundbreaking open data ordinance. San Francisco is one of the nation’s most credible and influential voices in the open data movement, which seeks to make all data used by the government public and machine-readable.

This might not sound exciting, but it is a very big deal.

Open data drives economic opportunity, increases transparency and oversight of government activity from the obvious to the arcane. With open data, citizens can see not just how the sausage is made, but how the permits got issued to make it, what the government said about it and how much, specifically, it cost. Without open data, cops in one city don’t know that the guy they just ticketed for an open bottle of beer in the park is a sex offender from the next county who is banned from being in parks, or a wanted fugitive. The list of positive benefits to the broader community goes on.

National implications

The proposed changes provide clearer codification of the city’s open data standards: strengthening citizen privacy protections, setting deadlines for release of specific data sets and creating timelines of accountability. Laws governing technology must be flexible enough to evolve, so not to lag the pace of innovation. These proposals are specific deliverables that comprise evolutionary steps in what must be a living, breathing framework.

They would set concrete requirements for coordination staff, review of all city datasets and publication of catalogs of available data all within six months, and an updated implementation plan presented to the city within one year. These milestones are the very feedstock of a new generation of job-creating small businesses.

These tighter deadlines ensure the city government remains accountable and accessible to the public, so that they and the entrepreneur community are made readily aware of any new guidelines or data sets the city releases.

This has national implications, because it places rational and transferable structure and milestones into the ordinance, to make sure that this and other open data agendas aren’t just something that sound great at a press conference, but which collapse on implementation. This helps not just the 85 cities who sent representatives to the CfA Summit, but all of America’s cities.

Many complain that government is too slow, and that technology outpaces legislation. San Francisco has moved aggressively to set specific policies, milestones and deadlines towards measurable progress in increasing open data access, while maintaining the necessary broadness of legislation which is, in fact, sweeping.

The COIT committee has an opportunity to seize the moment by treating the city’s open data laws as starting points for a policy and culture of open government that includes the vigilant and attentive oversight needed to achieve its goals. We cannot lose the momentum for what can be this generation’s most transformative cultural shift in the very bureaucratic morass it aims to eliminate.

About Nick Selby

Nick Selby is a Texas police officer, a government and law enforcement technology analyst, and CEO of StreetCred Software, Inc (a 2013 Code for America Accelerator company). StreetCred makes software that helps police agencies locate fugitives, get them out of the community and bring officers home safely. Nick is co-author of Blackhatonomics: An Inside Look at the Economics of Cyber Crime, and technical editor of Investigating Internet Crimes: An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyber Space.

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