Panel picture

Panel 2 on “Collaborating across the Civic Tech Ecosystem,” with moderator Robb Korinke and panelists Kalen Gallagher, Ed Shikada, Mark Headd and Julia Burkhead. Photo credit: Silicon Valley Talent Partnership

Our goal in bringing the California Open Data Roadshow to San Jose on July 10 was to kickstart the conversation on open data with local public, private and nonprofit leaders.

For me, it was also a dream opportunity to assemble a customized two-hour civic tech seminar with thought leaders and practitioners from throughout the state.

We packed a lot into two hours. Our conversation started with the “why” — the benefits of open data — but that was just the beginning. With our first panel on “Making Open Data a Reality” we quickly got into the “how” of open data, and the accompanying technical and institutional challenges. The second panel on ”Collaborating across the Civic Tech Ecosystem” explored different ways sectors can work together to overcome those challenges.

Here are five key themes that emerged from the conversation.

Open data is moving beyond transparency

As California Forward’s Robb Korinke highlighted in his remarks on Proposition 42, government transparency remains an important driver of open data. But the open data success stories shared by panelists also demonstrated the movement’s potential to affect the daily activities of residents, businesses and government workers by enhancing services, economic development and citizen engagement.

“We have to keep in mind how we’re making citizens lives better,” said Abhi Nemani, previously of Code for America and now working with GovDelivery, citing Boston’s school bus tracking app and San Mateo County’s social services finder. Appallicious founder Yo Yoshida shared his excitement for new Disaster Assessment and Assistance Dashboard, while OpenCounter co-founder Peter Koht talked about his work to help businesses and developers through the permitting process.

Opening data for the first time is a messy but valuable process

What about the very real challenge of consolidating and cleaning data from different agencies and legacy software systems — or in some cases stacks of paper files? Panelists who had helped other agencies through this process acknowledged the inevitable frustrations, but pointed out that innovation and process improvements were valuable by-products.

Code for San Jose Co-Leader Kalen Gallagher told the story of how, as a board member for Campbell Union High School District, he led an effort to digitize suspension and expulsion records, resulting in a new process in which data is now captured electronically. “Converting the stuff is tough, setting a new policy direction is a little easier. But it takes work.”

With all the work involved, it’s easy for overloaded government staff to wonder if it’s worth the effort. What if no one uses the data once it’s been published? Philadelphia’s former Chief Data Officer Mark Headd encouraged attendees to see the value in taking steps to foster a “data culture” within government: “As nonprofits, innovators and governments themselves start using that data, they’re going to invest more strategically in systems that seamlessly grab data. We’ll grow out of this phase where we have legacy systems. Any data that you have is important. Someone is going to want it.”

Legacy IT systems = huge opportunity

Decades-old IT systems and unwieldy procurement processes are commonly cited as major impediments to technology innovation in government, and not without reason. But they represent potential for change as well.

While fiscal constraints following the Great Recession stalled local government’s ability to invest in IT infrastructure over the past few years, San Jose’s Chief Information Officer Vijay Sammeta sees “an opportunity to reboot government’s thought process” as legacy systems come up for renewal. RFPs for new software can incorporate open data requirements such as exposing data through APIs, making it easier to share data with both internal and external users.

In fact, as Brian Purchia pointed out in his introductory remarks, this is exactly how CIO Lea Deesing plans to leverage Riverside’s procurement process for a new permitting system.

Civic tech means working on problems that matter

The need to develop inclusive technology that acknowledges the diversity of our communities is a big part of the civic tech movement. As Code for America’s Director of Community Organizing, Catherine Bracy, has previously stated, “Civic tech doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.” This message was also front and center at San Jose’s Open Data Roadshow.

California’s GO-Biz Director Kish Rajan challenged the audience to use technological innovation to address rather than exacerbate the state’s growing economic gap between the private and public sectors, and between the have and have-nots. On a local level, San Jose City Manager Ed Shikada noted the contradiction between the region’s rapid economic growth while the city grapples with helping a homeless population of 4,770. In terms of specific project areas, Community Technology Alliance Deputy Director Julia Burkhead made a persuasive case for the potential of data-driven solutions to help service providers address homelessness and poverty.

The opportunity to work on problems that matter is an important factor motivating developers to tackle the technical and institutional challenges of working with open government data. Code for San Jose’s own growing volunteer base is evidence that local citizens are eager to use their skills to make a difference in their communities.

Finding common ground is key to collaboration

It’s relatively easy to agree on the potential benefits of open data, but the reality is that local government and nonprofits face finite resources and competing priorities. Meanwhile, the technical, cultural and institutional barriers to open data can appear time-consuming and daunting for any given individual or department to attack on their own.

The good news, as was evident from the enthusiasm and energy in the room at the Open Data Roadshow, is that San Jose has a broad ecosystem of public, private and nonprofit sector players who share common interests and want to use open data for good.

As City Manager Ed Shikada highlighted, collaborative efforts to advance open data are most likely to gain traction if the benefits clearly support government’s core services, which remain a priority: “Part of the trick for all of us is to be able to communicate to the people who are currently involved in the machine and thinking they’re doing the best for the people. What is this open data thing, and why would I take away from the important work that I’m doing to help with this effort? The challenge is being able to identify the common opportunity that then forms the foundation for working together.”

Some of the innovative ways that the City of San Jose has been exploring private and nonprofit sector partnerships outside of the traditional procurement model include demonstration projects and volunteer engagements through Silicon Valley Talent Partnership.

Keeping the conversation going

The panel discussions touched on numerous other juicy topics that I didn’t get to delve into here. Below are a few that seem ripe for discussion at future events and workshops:

  • The need for data standards and how San Jose can participate in advancing such efforts
  • How open data is blurring the lines between data producers and data consumers
  • Procurement and other channels for governments to partner with the private sector

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what other participants gleaned from the event. Tweet your thoughts using #OpenDataSJ or ping me @michellethong or @codeforsanjose. Let’s keep the conversation going!