Open data standards should be the first step toward open government

19 March 2015 by Steve Blum
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Welcome to Sunshine Week. No, it’s not about the vernal equinox or the proper SPF level to use. It’s about open government and access to data. Several meetings and events were held in Sacramento to mark it. Yesterday, I went to Data Summit 2015, organised by California Forward.

San Francisco assemblyman Phil Ting was the first of more than a dozen speakers, talking about the need for consistent and timely release of public data in a useful way, and the bill he’s sponsoring to encourage it.

There was general agreement about the value of releasing public data – $3 trillion, if you believe a report from the McKinsey Global Institute – and the woeful state of affairs in California, where paper forms still dominate workflows at some public agencies.

What was largely missing, I thought, was discussion of two critical problems: establishing standards and convincing agency employees to embrace information publishing as a routine part of the job.

“We have to move away from the form driven mind set that has driven state government for too long”, said Jodi Remke, the chairwoman of the Calfornia Fair Political Practices Commission. She made a convincing case for the need to do so, but didn’t really have an answer. Mike Wilkening, from the department of health and human services, talked about his approach of working through offices one by one to bring people on board, rather than issue a top down make it so order. I would have liked to hear more about that.

Several speakers shared their experience developing and rolling out web and app-based tools for accessing particular information, but only Nicole Neditch from Code for America dove into the problem of creating common, open source tools for doing so. There was barely a mention, though, of establishing common standards for data publishing, which is a critical first step if open data initiatives are to break out of internal, let alone agency by agency, silos.