Open Data in the Capitol- aka the anti-PDF and show us your data day.

Today I spent my day sitting in senate and assembly hearing rooms in our (rather beautiful) state capitol to testify in favor of two new bills that would make open data more impacting in California.

It’s a bit of a departure from my normal tech scene, but for the first time there are a slew of bills hitting the state and these are really important to the future of our state.

The first up was SB 272 from Senator Hertzberg, a piece of legislation that requires local governments to conduct and publish an inventory of their data systems and contents.  This one is big. I’m calling it the “Show us your data bill”.

Open data has been used by civic hackers to build countless new apps and to explain data in new ways, from apps that help inform people if they live in earthquake safe homes, to making city budgets understandable for the first time through to tools that help families find early childhood education and services easily, from the convenience of their phone.

SB272 is an important piece of our state infrastructure- while may cities do have open data policies, these take some time to implement and residents are left in the dark about what data their local government actually has, and how it’s collected.  This is important from a perspective of trust building for sure- knowing what data our police department collects is vitally important to understanding how that department works.  We’ve had impassioned fights in Oakland over data privacy yet most of this debate is happening without really know just how much and what kind of data our city really has. 

Data inventories will empower residents and will lead to better quality public records requests- right now, if you don’t know what is collected, you are forced to make vague, uncertain requests, never sure if the data exist.  With public data inventories, our communities will be able to make informed requests. This builds trust and improves efficiency.

SB 272 is also important as there is too much opacity in local government contracting; making visible the exact systems and software used in managing these data will provide valuable intelligence to the business community.

Lastly, it is also critical that we develop these inventories as technologists build ever more powerful and useful apps, we run into the issues of these apps stopping at your city border because the data don’t exist or aren’t obviously available in the next city over.  Knowing which data exist, and where, is a huge step forward in encouraging future innovation and making modern tools work for all of our residents.

Next up was AB169 from Assemblymember Mainschein, a small piece of legislation that helps define what “open” means and helps to firm up the standards in which data are published, when published.  Let’s call this one the “Kill All PDFs” Bill. It requires data or records to be published in machine readable, digital formats in ways that can be searched and indexed- this is good, but unfortunately a PDF can be searched by Google, so maybe this bill isn’t perfect from a geek’s perspective, but it does make data publishing standards much clear and more helpful for those of us using public data.  Perhaps as important, this bill requires data to be published in the original structure where possible- putting pressure on government staff to not refactor or redact data files unless legally necessary.

Both bills went through with unanimous support, off to the next stage of political machination.  I’m hopeful they will see sunlight in the end, they are important pieces of our future.  As this day wraps up, I’m left dwelling on this one thing- every issue heard today had a slew of hired lobbyists to represent the various interests- electric cars, solar systems, government contractors and more; I’ve been frustrated by the lack of movement and leadership at a state level in California regarding open data and now I realize something-

Open Data has no lobbyist. 

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Data: It’s all about people, not the data

I’m a data geek. I’ll own that. I love what data can do, what it can inform, what it can tell me.  I constantly find myself mentally connecting conversations I’m in and meetings I’m part of to the data that could best inform the discussion or the decisions. It’s a bit of a problem.

As our society and our government becomes slowly absorbed by the data deluge we’re now enabling, there is a righteous backlash from many that data isn’t what it’s all about, data are not more important than say, people. And this is a fair suggestion. Sometimes this is a valid and constructive statement – the point of analysis is not the data, the results or the visualization of those results, it’s what those data can do to inform decisions that will have a human impact that matters.  Where I get frustrated is with people loving to push back on the idea of using data pro-actively is when people argue that “this problem isn’t about data, it’s not something we need data for, we already know what’s happening”. I hate those statements.  They relay a level of arrogance that is not intentional but real.  Anytime someone already fully knows the nuance and scale of a problem, they better also have insights as to the solutions, otherwise what good has their knowledge and insight been to the people they care about helping?

This is another case of two sides acting as if only one side is important. And that is not something productive or effective for most social issues. It’s next to impossible to get executive buy in to change something with just experience and intuition, we don’t often see policy or investment decisions based on insight alone.  Likewise, we should not ever be making serious decisions or assumptions just based on data alone. That leads to decisions made lacking critical context and nuance and to simplistic technocratic solutions. Better to be pairing the data with the insights and experience of those living out those data.

Just as policies are often more successful when developed with the decision makers and implementers involved, so too should data driven decisions be constructed.  A great local example of this in action appeared in the release of our latest report focused on attendance problems in Oakland Unified Schools. Despite serious problems of chronic absenteeism across the district, Garfield Elementary is one of six schools in Oakland that have cut chronic absences by half or more. The Principal, Nima Tahai said “First, it’s data driven. You have to have the numbers in front of you, student names and down to the reasons for each absence… Then, school staff must engage in one-on-one work with families, reaching out to them to find out what is going on and talking to them about the importance of getting their kids to school. He went on to say that Garfield administrators even pick up kids to drive them to school if a family is stuck without transportation or a parent is ill.

This problem would never have been raised to the community’s attention without thoughtful analysis of very detailed data on every student in the district. Data revealed the scale of the problem, and then, in the hands of a facile administrator, were used to identify individual points of influence or action- each student in need of help.  The data alone mean just a nice report or a compliance document. When delivered in a form that can support action, these data become powerful elements of change. Data, people, action. That’s how government should be driving change, data driven, not data obsessed.

*First posted on Govloop.com

Oakland’s City Council Tech to upgrade from 1997 software

To get an idea of how badly Oakland needs to upgrade it’s digital infrastructure read this one line from the staff report today:

“Legistar 4.8 has not been upgraded since purchase in 1997 & has reached the limits”

Limits in this case being the massive limitations of the current technology to support better civic engagement and discussion and no ability for our community to access the critical data held in the legislative system in Oakland.
There are many big changes desperately needed in our city’s tech stack and this is one long overdue. Our ancient legislation software was the reason Miguel and his crew struggled so hard to complete the build-out of our Councilmatic system, however with this big upgrade, we’ll be using a similar system to other major cities which means both improved user facing functionality as well as a much easier deployment of a more robust Councilmatic system that has been tailored for this version by folks in Phily & Chicago.

This upgrade hit the city Finance Committee today, we’ve been waiting for over two years so it’s exciting that this finally gets approved. While the software upgrade itself is an important step for our city, more important was witnessing the ways our staff and elected officials have adapted their thinking about technology, data, code and procurement.  Two years ago there was nothing to brag about, not much to be proud of in our cities use of technology and our law making. Today saw what I think was a pivotal moment for our city. Curious? This gets geeky fast, sorry…

It turns out that there is something in addition to the basic software the vendor, Granicus, can offer- an API – if you’re not a tech geek, this essentially means a robot (code, not real) that takes in requests form various people, programs, companies and dishes out the information requested in digital form.  In this case, the API is something Granicus has built but has not made available to cities that have not required access to it- almost noone to date (NYC is just now struggling to get this sorted out and seems to be on the right track).  Councilmember Schaaf halted before approving the purchase and asked the committee to require that Granicus provide us with this API as part of the contract requirements. Noone in Oakland has ever unbundled the contracted software from the date before (aside form the unintentional effort with SeeClickFix that came with an API we didn’t need to request).
This means that we get a new legislative publishing and video streaming system, but we also get direct access to all the data in this system- machine readable data that allows local hackers and engineers to build alert systems on specific issues and neighborhoods, custom tools to help people stay informed about what our government is doing and, well, anything you may want to do with full access to the data about our decision making and public meeting track records- voting decisions, law sponsoring and more. Stuff civic geeks dream of.
After the meeting I emailed LaTonda Simmons, our City Clerk who is the manager of this whole system to thank her for moving this and making it possible to unlock this data.  I was concerned the lack of specificity about the API being public would somehow bite us in the ass, I was wrong.  Her response was encouraging- folks in city hall are listening and it turns out that geeks can make a difference.

Hi Spike – I spoke to Granicus immediately after to Finance.  They reconfirmed they will turn on API.   And yes, your feedback and that of many others will be important in this process.  More to come and thank you for your support also.  I must add that this wouldn’t have been possible without Bryan making it move.  Looking forward to the next CityCamp event.  Chat soon.

-= LaTonda S.

People in the city are really starting to get this stuff and it’s gonna be awesome as it becomes the norm- less bundling of contracted software with the data etc. And thanks to our new CIO Bryan Sastokas for starting to make things happen!
###
Info on the staff report here.
Oakland’s current system for council info is here.
Side note:
Also on this committee’s agenda was an awesome proposal to increase and make permanent a number of deeper engagement efforts around the city budget that the Budget Advisory Committee proposed.

Creating a new OpenData policy that works for Oakland

You often hear of collaborative models, real engagement and all that, but it often isn’t quite like that in reality. For once we have a chance to do something legit though. In Oakland. Urban Strategies Council has helped to draft a new policy for the City of Oakland to consider and with the encouragement of Council member Libby Schaaf we are making the draft open for any and all feedback. That’s right, you can suggest anything you like for consideration.

In a week or two we will host a roundtable/brainstorm at Urban Strategies Council to get together, hash out ideas and potential improvements and you’re welcome to participate in person.  The draft form takes what I consider to be the most relevant/strongest elements from policies in place in Austin, Portland and Raleigh. Why rewrite what others have done well. That’s what open source is about, and it works for more than software.

For the geekery, this policy is shared in Google Docs, not on GitHub. It’s not that we’re not cool enough or not down with GitHub (witness my amateur progress into that world, ha), it’s that we want something accessible to anyone for review, not just the uber geeks amongst us. We asked a few people on the edge of the dev world and had very resounding agreement that git would be a barrier, so we go low tech.

Have at it people- make it work for Oakland!

Draft policy.

Years of life lost: the huge cost on our country.

From my public health background I appreciate this take on gun violence- this part of the story has not been in the national discourse but it’s a very real problem- for every victim we lose a productive* member of our society who could have gone on to do good things, bring in income, pay taxes, support families. The years of life lost to gun violence is truly staggering.
http://guns.periscopic.com/

image

*No, I’m not ignorant of the fact that many shot are thugs and may not have had a positive life trajectory. But that doesn’t mean we can consider their lives as no loss. They have families and friends and many in  the game turn their lives around. Don’t dismiss people because they are not living the straight and narrow “like the rest of us”. We all count. We all have mothers.

http://guns.periscopic.com/

In ten words or less, sugar is both toxic and abused. Every substance that is both toxic and abused at the same time requires both personal intervention, which, for lack of a better word, we can call ‘rehab,’ or societal intervention [which], for lack of a better word, we call ‘a tax.’ Same thing we do with alcohol and tobacco.

According to Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco, it’s a dangerous trend. The mass consumption of sugar via soda affects the human body much like drugs and tobacco. Lustig also argued that education alone is not enough to fight sugar addiction.

From the EBX article on how Big Soda played the Race baiting game to defeat the soda tax.

We’re losing eight children and teenagers to gun violence every day… As far as young people are concerned, we lose the equivalent of the massacre at Virginia Tech about every four days.

Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. Source

The quality of our ideas is diminished when we close off debate with those who disagree with us, when we ignore evidence that challenges our preconceived notions.

Eggers & Oleary, If we can put a man on the moon…