Open Data is a Civil Right

Yo Yoshida, Founder & CEO, Appallicious in GovTech: “As Americans, we expect a certain standardization of basic services, infrastructure and laws — no matter where we call home. When you live in Seattle and take a business trip to New York, the electric outlet in the hotel you’re staying in is always compatible with your computer charger. When you drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I-5 doesn’t all-of-a-sudden turn into a dirt country road because some cities won’t cover maintenance costs. If you take a 10-minute bus ride from Boston to the city of Cambridge, you know the money in your wallet is still considered legal tender.

But what if these expectations of consistency were not always a given? What if cities, counties and states had absolutely zero coordination when it came to basic services? This is what it is like for us in the open data movement. There are so many important applications and products that have been built by civic startups and concerned citizens. However, all too often these efforts are confided to city limits, and unavailable to anyone outside of them. It’s time to start reimagining the way cities function and how local governments operate. There is a wealth of information housed in local governments that should be public by default to help fuel a new wave of civic participation.
Appallicious’ Neighborhood Score provides an overall health and sustainability score, block-by-block for every neighborhood in the city of San Francisco. The first time metrics have been applied to neighborhoods so we can judge how government allocates our resources, so we can better plan how to move forward. But, if you’re thinking about moving to Oakland, just a subway stop away from San Francisco and want to see the score for a neighborhood, our app can’t help you, because that city has yet to release the data sets we need.
In Contra Costa County, there is the lifesaving PulsePoint app, which notifies smartphone users who are trained in CPR when someone nearby may be in need of help. This is an amazing app—for residents of Contra Costa County. But if someone in neighboring Alameda County needs CPR, the app, unfortunately, is completely useless.
Buildingeye visualizes planning and building permit data to allow users to see what projects are being proposed in their area or city. However, buildingeye is only available in a handful of places, simply because most cities have yet to make permits publicly available. Think about what this could do for the construction sector — an industry that has millions of jobs for Americans. Buildingeye also gives concerned citizens access to public documents like never before, so they can see what might be built in their cities or on their streets.
Along with other open data advocates, I have been going from city-to-city, county-to-county and state-to-state, trying to get governments and departments to open up their massive amounts of valuable data. Each time one city, or one county, agrees to make their data publicly accessible, I can’t help but think it’s only a drop in the bucket. We need to think bigger.
Every government, every agency and every department in the country that has already released this information to the public is a case study that points to the success of open data — and why every public entity should follow their lead. There needs to be a national referendum that instructs that all government data should be open and accessible to the public.
Last May, President Obama issued an executive order requiring that going forward, any data generated by the federal government must be made available to the public in open, machine-readable formats. In the executive order, Obama stated that, “openness in government strengthens our democracy, promotes the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public, and contributes to economic growth.”
If this is truly the case, Washington has an obligation to compel local and state governments to release their data as well. Many have tried to spur this effort. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom created the Citizenville Challenge to speed up adoption on the local level. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has also been vocal in promoting open data efforts. But none of these initiatives could have the same effect of a federal mandate.
What I am proposing is no small feat, and it won’t happen overnight. But there should be a concerted effort by those in the technology industry, specifically civic startups, to call on Congress to draft legislation that would require every city in the country to make their data open, free and machine readable. Passing federal legislation will not be an easy task — but creating a “universal open data” law is possible. It would require little to no funding, and it is completely nonpartisan. It’s actually not a political issue at all; it is, for lack of a better word, and administrative issue.
Often good legislation is blocked because lawmakers and citizens are concerned about project funding. While there should be support to help cities and towns achieve the capability of opening their data, a lot of the time, they don’t need it. In 2009, the city and county of San Francisco opened up its data with zero dollars. Many other cities have done the same. There will be cities and municipalities that will need financial assistance to accomplish this. But it is worth it, and it will not require a significant investment for a substantial return. There are free online open data portals, like ckan, dkan and a new effort from Accela,, to centralize open data efforts.
When the UK Government recently announced a £1.5 million investment to support open data initiatives, its Cabinet Office Minister said, “We know that it creates a more accountable, efficient and effective government. Open Data is a raw material for economic growth, supporting the creation of new markets, business and jobs and helping us compete in the global race.”
We should not fall behind these efforts. There is too much at stake for our citizens, not to mention our economy. A recent McKinsey report found that making open data has the potential to create $3 trillion in value worldwide.
Former Speaker Tip O’Neil famously said, “all politics are local.” But we in the civic startup space believe all data is local. Data is reporting potholes in your neighborhood and identifying high crime areas in your communities. It’s seeing how many farmers’ markets there are in your town compared to liquor stores. Data helps predict which areas of a city are most at risk during a heat wave and other natural disasters. A federal open data law would give the raw material needed to create tools to improve the lives of all Americans, not just those who are lucky enough to live in a city that has released this information on its own.
It’s a different way of thinking about how a government operates and the relationship it has with its citizens. Open data gives the public an amazing opportunity to be more involved with governmental decisions. We can increase accountability and transparency, but most importantly we can revolutionize the way local residents communicate and work with their government.
Access to this data is a civil right. If this is truly a government by, of and for the people, then its data needs to be available to all of us. By opening up this wealth of information, we will design a better government that takes advantage of the technology and skills of civic startups and innovative citizens….”