And coming from behind: Alameda County to adopt OpenData!

Some days you get pleasant surprises. Some days bureaucrats really do get stuff done. Some days government staff really do agree and align their efforts with those of the elected leaders who typically just butt heads with those they lead. Yesterday was one of those days.

Alameda County is going to be adopting an opendata platform this year, with either a live portal or an alpha version for internal review by the board of supervisors retreat in September. Just like that. Well, not quite that easy. Late last year we were part of a new committee setup by Supervisor Nate Miley to examine ways to integrate data between agencies and after some initial discussions we pushed the group to consider the value of making much of these data available to the public. We delivered a few demos on our web mapping and data tools and developed some materials showing the benefits, principles and reasons for opendata in governement. As with the City of Oakland I drafted a policy piece, some guidelines on how to select data within each department and a guide to implementing opendata across the county. Couple meetings happen, then nothing, silencio.

But during the silence the county was actually doing something constructive. Albeit choosing a vendor (some things don’t change), one with a heavy monopoly, but still making a good decision for the county. Alameda County will be rolling out a Socrata portal.  Now I do like their tools, they make an excellent product, I’m just saddened to see a steady monopoly in a space that is all about openness, opensource and innovation. Personal grievance aside, this is GREAT!

There is now some real momentum to this working committee to make something happen. Socrata got the nod because it’s just so damn easy, turnkey and all that. I can’t disagree, it really lowers the barrier to entry for agencies without the opensource chops to stand up a CKAN instance, sadly, and that will likely be the same scenario in most US cities I’m guessing, although it will be interesting to see just what Junar can come up with.

There’s a lot of work to do, many agencies have reservations, many have piss-poor data ecosystems and this seems threatening, but there is some exciting progress, including the sheriff agreeing to publish their data in a usable format for the first time publicly. Did you know that Alameda’s sheriff published block level (hmm) crime data to for the past year? I didn’t, not that it matters much when you only publish government data into one closed, average system.

Our next step is to work through some issues that we’ve discovered within the county systems in the course of our work- serious data deficiencies that only a small does of modernizing would yield some serious gains. We’re also hoping to get a couple of new data sets released in time for the next #CodeforOakland hackathon on July 21st. I’ll also be curious to see if a larger urban county can help to pull up some of the smaller cities in it’s coverage to use their same data platform.

What is surprising is that despite their being serious approval of this effort at an elected leader level there isn’t a desire to formalize this effort in legislation, policy or directive. I suggested that this rare circumstance of staff and leaders wanting the same thing is the perfect opportunity to get supporting legislation or directives in place- partly to sustain it beyond the current champions and also to really leverage these good efforts. It’s really wonderful to see county staff and leaders working in the same direction- it’s not as common as you may think. Once again technology and data are really capable of bringing about cultural and functional changes beyond their seemingly innocuous scope of impact. Geeks unite, open government is creeping forward.

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