OpenData hits Oakland City Council

Today is a very exciting day in the city of Oakland, especially so if you’re in any way interested in public data, civic engagement, open government and technology incubation and innovation in your community. At noon today the city council’s Finance and Management Committee (sounds fun doesn’t it!) will hear a resolution and likely pass said resolution requiring the city to move towards a true OpenData platform. After 18 months of civic hackers, developers, journos and tech heads talking, encouraging, blogging and educating our elected officials, we finally are at a place where our cities enormous data holdings can be utilized for more than mere compliance reporting and perhaps occasional management tasks.

This represents some very real, very powerful change for our town. It means that our rich developer community will have a huge trove of data to work with for app development, research, analysis, data visualization, accountability work and for planning of new businesses in the tech and non-tech sectors. It’s a chance for us to not be a lagging city, to really tap the potential we have both internally in city hall and in our residents.

Imagine- being able to quickly and easily find all the current business permits by address, to compare that with the vacant and blighted property datasets, city zoning standards for every parcel,  to then add in the best crime data, population demographics and public works calls for service- all the key pieces of information a potential new business owner would want to consider placing a new location in Oakland. Key things that allow commerce to grow and prosper, all available to everyone, at no cost. The potential for our town is huge, city data warehouses, bureaucratic spiderwebs of red tape and uncertainty over what data exists and can be released are a real and present barrier to growth and development in our city, especially in micro-enterprise and new, innovative start-ups. But this can change.

The resolution hitting the committee today, introduced by Council member Libby Schaaf is a result of slow, honest education of our elected officials and leaders of the value of data to both our community and to city staff, and open data policy, process and web portal will mean incredibly smooth access to data for city staff and officials that do not have access even now, which is a travesty.  It’s also a result of some fantastic field building efforts courtesy of CivicCommons, Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation.

Now that several other US cities have established OpenData policies and work-flows, I don’t see the need to go through all the pain and red tape of new policies drafted by committees in every single city in the US, (ala my piece on Barriers v Processes). I’ll write up the whole process from day one of trying to get a city to consider and implement an OpenData policy once it’s all done, but for now I want to show how the pieces can be massaged to work together.

The resolution and the report for the committee includes concepts, large chunks of text and principles from the following sources:

So we’re not there yet, but it’s finally happening, and I want to make sure the above sources get due credit for making the path straighter for us here in Oakland. If we can build and reuse technology in government we sure as hell should be reusing policies, reusing approaches to get new policies in place or at least considered, and reusing approaches to highlight the value of opendata for our local governments.

Lastly, regarding the build-out of an opendata portal for Oakland, as we had been planning (via Urban Strategies Council and the Code for America Brigade), we are going to wait for this resolution to pass, hoping that the city administrator or mayor’s staff will be willing to really engage us and the tech community to plan and help build out a system for both the community and the city to use and manage. I’d always prefer a partnership approach than a solo gunman approach. Hopefully this will be the first big opportunity for the city to open up and work with its very skilled, motivated tech community!

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