SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS: Bob Hertzberg: Think big (data) to improve access to government

By Bob Hertzberg

August 20, 2015

This is an exciting time for government openness. Open data policy, like making public information more accessible on department websites, has come slowly to government. However, there is a growing understanding that there's great value in improving data practices.

With the McKinsey Global Institute estimating that more than $3 trillion in economic value is locked away inside information stored by government, it is no wonder that smart data policies are beneficial to both government and the broader public. And they are being increasingly adopted around the world.

After San Francisco started Twitter311 and moved real-time transit data online, calls to 311 decreased almost 22 percent and the Chief Innovation Officer estimated it would save the city nearly $1 million. From Google Maps to the information that aids modern farming, access to GPS data by individuals and businesses is estimated at $90 billion in annual value to the U.S. economy.

Many states and several counties and cities have put in place robust open data policies complete with online information portals and automated updates for posted public records. While those places are realizing the benefits of better data management, we have reached a point where all of California, a state of 58 counties and almost 500 cities, should also share in the benefits.

But open data is also about ensuring the public has access to government. Enumerated in our California constitution, the very right of access to the workings of government is a fundamental piece of our democracy.

In Sacramento, we need to lay the groundwork for substantive and thoughtful open data policy that will improve government and communities across the state.

The first step in the process is understanding what's out there. We need a comprehensive understanding of what data management practices exist before making changes and adding new policies. So how do we start?

Senate Bill 272, which I am authoring, asks local agencies to put together a catalog of the systems they use to manage public information. Cataloging these is a vital first step in promoting open data across the state and ensuring that all Californians have access to the public records that local agencies collect and maintain.

Along with establishing baseline knowledge of what exists, definitions are needed to help standardize data practice. Assemblyman Brian Maienschein is carrying legislation which will ensure that public information deemed "open" is downloadable, searchable and usable. Properly gathered and clearly understood data will help empower state and local agencies to collaborate more effectively and improve services. However, the right foundation is essential for thoughtful and practical data policy for this state.

A question we in government must routinely ask ourselves is "How can we bring government closer to the people?"

Improving access to government brings the public closer to government. And though it takes many forms, one way to strengthen the relationship between the people and government is through making public information more available to the public.

Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, chairs the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance and served in the Assembly from 1996-2002, including two years as Speaker. He wrote this for this newspaper.

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