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I left my data in San Francisco

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 22, 2013
Central government in the US and the UK is wielding its open data stick, but how does this translate to local and regional level? San Francisco is setting an interesting pace for others to follow.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee

Recent weeks have seen both the US and the UK governments taking action intended to drive forward the cause of open data and transparency, both critical elements in the fostering of digitally-enabled economy.

But while such efforts are wholly to be commended, with one or two slight reservations perhaps, central government mandates serve a particular purpose.

They lay down a marker. They're a statement of intent. They're a sign of the big cheeses at the top of the political totem pole saying 'this is a good thing to do, now get on with it'.[sws_pullquote_right]Read also
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And ultimately they're indicative of a loss of patience with central government or federal officials who don't want to play nicely - the political will meets the administrative won't, as it were.

But how do they impact policies away from the front line of Westminster or Washington? What do central or federal government mandates mean there? In reality, not a lot.

Take the UK's recent Cloud First mandate - long-awaited, much needed, enthusiastically welcomed and essentially irrelevant outside of central government departments.

Actually that's not fair. It's not irrelevant of course - it's a loud and clear indication to the entire public sector of what best practice should be. But the point is that if a local authority CIO decides he or she wants nothing to do with the cloud, they may be:

(a) dumb

(b) failing in their public servant duty to find the best solution for the taxpayer

(c) soon to be looking for a new job

but in real terms they're perfectly within their rights. No stick here, only a carrot dangled from a safe distance behind the lights of London.

Open data push

Will it be the same case with open data? Well let's look at the US for a lead here.

According to a Municipal Open Data Policies study released in April by the San Diego Regional Data Library, only seven cities across the US and Canada have adopted open data policies: Washington DC, San Francisco, Portland, Austin, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The study notes:

Creating an Open Data policy is a powerful commitment to openness, transparency, and public participation, and with advancing technology, it is a policy that is easy to implement and manage. Open data projects have been run not only at many cities, but many states as well, providing a base of experience that gives cities a straightforward way to demonstrate their desire for better, more efficient government.

The reasons those cities put such policies in place are essentially built around the same drivers:

  • Increasing government transparency and access to information about government.
  • Encouraging participation by citizens in government and civic life.
  • Enabling city departments to collaborate with one another and with the private sector.
  • Promoting innovation in the form of new applications and ideas.
  • Encouraging civic development, economic improvement and general community growth.

California dreaming 

San Francisco is a good case in point, a city with 2,600 employees and a $7 billion a year budget.

Its open data push dates back to 2009 when the then mayor Gavin Newsom issued an Executive Directive to promote open data policies, followed the next year by the passing of the city's Open Data Policy by the Board of Supervisors. This had some clear objectives including:

  • Fostering citizen participation in City projects
  • Increased citizen interaction with municipal government.
  • Supporting early state entrepreneurship
  • Workforce development and job creation
  • Fostering a positive business environment and promoting public-private partnerships.

This resulted in the current Open Data Portal (called “San Francisco Data”) which puts in one place all approved city data that help constituents make better use of information.

Only city or county employees may publish data to the portal.

Right now, citizens who log onto San Francisco Data, can browse through 500 city maintained data sets, but there are literally thousands and thousands more still under wraps for a variety of reasons, but most essentially official indifference and low prioritisation of the open data push at departmental level.

All of that is set to change.

Beefing it up

At the end of April this year, the current San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee signed into law the Citywide Coordination of Open Data Policy and Procedures. This is a significant piece of legislation that orders that departmental data coordinators assist in the implementation of the Open Data Policy.

But of most interest perhaps is the fact that it establishes the position and duties of a new Chief Data Officer to be appointed by the mayor and who will report to the mayor’s budget director. According to the new legislation, the new chief data officer will be responsible for:

sharing City data with the public, facilitating the sharing of information between city departments and analyzing how data sets can be used to improve city decision making.

In addition, departmental data coordinators will be identified from existing staff at the approximately 50 City departments, board, commission and agencies and will oversee implementation and compliance with the Open Data Policy with that department.

Each department is now tasked with making available all data sets under the department’s control while complying with privacy laws, preparing an open data plan, establishing a timeline for the publication of the open data, summarizing the data sets under the department’s control and prioritizing the data sets for inclusion on the DataSF website.

David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, makes it clear that open data policies are not only seen as desirable but essential:

Openness and transparency are the fundamental basis for any successful government, particularly in an internet age. We see, in many jurisdictions around the country, that when you release government data, you have an improved relationship between government and citizens. That has led to a lot of success in how you improve government, particularly when you harness the ideas and the talents of the public in how to analyze public data. That can lead us to innovating both government and our communities.

So the push goes on. The city now has a new CIO in the shape of Marc Touitou, whose open data responsibilities were flagged up by Mayor Lee when announcing his appointment:

As a leader in innovation and open data policies, San Francisco is committed to implementing new approaches to make City government even more transparent, efficient and constituent-focused. Marc Touitou, our City’s new Chief Information Officer, is an accomplished change maker, who has proven executive experience in global organizations and shares my commitment to challenge our own City government to be more accountable and engaged, and make San Francisco, the world’s first City 2.0.

As for the Chief Data Officer appointment, that's still to come. The next step will be for the Board of Supervisors to review the ordinance and then an appointment can be made.

Who's in charge?

What will be interesting now is to see how the hierarchies work out in practice. San Francisco has a CIO. It also has a Chief Innovation Officer. It's about to get a Chief Data Officer. Demarcation lines will have to be drawn up pretty carefully I suspect to avoid a case of 'too many chiefs'.

Jennifer Belissent of Forrester's Business Technology Futures arm makes the point:

What functions does the new role take on? Does the new role take on new uses of data for business strategy? Who has responsibility for existing functions of information management and data governance? Then from the organisational perspective, where does this new role sit? Who reports to the CDO?

Belissent looks to Canada for an answer and settles on Vancouver, also a keen open data policy champion and, upon examining that city's open data strategy, concludes that there is no need for a Chief Data Officer when there is already a CIO in place:

Rather than creating a new role in the city administration, Vancouver would benefit best from a Digital Working Group – comprised of representatives from all relevant departments and stakeholder groups – to drive new processes and practices consistent with the digital strategy...What’s most important is to set goals, identify the strategy for achieving those goals and assign responsibility to the appropriate (existing) chiefs in the organisation.

Across the US public sector, a number of agencies and organisations have or publicly want to have Chief Data Officers, including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Communications Commission, the Army, the Commodity Futures Trading Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In the private sector around the world, the same debate is going on of course. At the recent Buy-Side Technology European Summit 2013 in London, Mike Wright, global head of technology at investment house Man Group, made the point that CIOs ought to defend their turf:

"You should be perceived as the Chief Data Officer. It's interesting that some organizations are hiring or forming chief data officer roles. To me, that's unfortunate - the CIO should absolutely be the CDO as well. Maintaining and understanding the quality of the data, the ownership of the data, and how it changes and migrates during its lifecycle is a core part of what our roles should be."

This will be a subject of considerable debate as more cities around the US and other geographies start to tackle the question of getting their open data houses in order.

The central government push for open data is now firmly in place. Local and regional government will find themselves under considerable pressure to follow suit. It's time for some serious thinking about how this will work at ground level.

High principles need to become deliverable practice. With that in mind, a lot of attention will be paid to what happens in San Francisco over the coming months.

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