The Gallery: Make Open Data the Default Policy for the Golden State

state house gallery

Next month, Californians get the chance to vote on a statewide ballot initiative that could fuel a whole new generation of civic-minded entrepreneurs and radically improve the way government works.

Proposition 42 would make access to government information a constitutional requirement in every city and town in the Golden State. California Governor Jerry Brown and a long list of elected officials have come out in support of 42, but in order for it to meet its full potential, state government needs to lead by example and make open data its default setting. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Governor Brown has the opportunity to build the new super highway.

California is home to a tech industry that has transformed the way people across the world share information and helped spur democracy. Twitter, Facebook, and Google have created new ways for people to communicate. And we’ve seen glimpses of what some of these tech folks can do to make government more transparent and responsive when given the tools.

The emerging civic tech industry is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. But for these lofty goals to be realized, the industry needs open data and standardization.

This can be done; many local governments and states have adopted open data policies. In 2009, when San Francisco didn’t have funds to pay for a system to text its 311 call center, Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams worked with the city to create the first government integration of Twitter. The collaboration between government and the tech industry made it possible for residents to communicate in real time about potholes, broken streetlights, and other issues with a photo or text.

Other municipalities and agencies have followed San Francisco’s open data lead. Oakland passed its first open data policy last October. Sacramento, the home of California’s state government, allows its residents to access meaningful city data with the click of a button.

My company, Accela has seen the first-hand benefits open data policies can provide. Our technology platform has helped over 500 state and local governments streamline their operations and realize significant cost savings. Many of the civic startups we partner with, like OpenCounter and BuildingEye are using open data to make it easier to start a business or track new construction projects.

But for these new tools to work universally, California needs an open data policy.

Although California was one of the first states in the country with a state open data portal (, it has only added two new feeds in the past three years. Other states, such as Texas, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maryland, and Utah, are currently leading the way, while California, home to Silicon Valley is falling further and further behind.

Prop. 42 gives California the opportunity to lead in the new gold rush of data. If it passes – and current polling indicates that it will – there will be an incentive for local governments and agencies to avoid the arduous burdens associated with complying with public access laws by simply making information available online. Forcing government employees to locate and photocopy documents wastes time and costs taxpayer money — opening a data portal does not.

Gov. Brown and state legislators should use this opportunity to put forward state legislation requiring open data to be uniform and machine-readable on the state and local levels. If the state works with the tech industry to set standards for local governments and state agencies to follow, everyone will benefit. The public will be able to digest and use the information it receives. Governments will increase efficiency and reduce costs. And civic tech businesses in California will boom with new apps and civic-minded products that will work in every zip code in the state.

The state helped fuel a clean tech boom with forward thinking laws, it can do the same for the civic tech industry.

Now is the time to think big. In California, we’ve never been afraid of innovation. We have an industry that has changed the way the world interacts on a daily basis. And we have a citizenry that is invested in the future.

Why not make California a model in open data policies for the rest of the country to follow? Why not merge the requirements of California’s public access laws with the capabilities of California’s tech industry? A state open data policy that mandates, not only access to government information, but readability and uniformity of government data statewide, will stimulate the civic tech industry, create jobs, reduce government costs, empower citizens and foster the free flow of information essential to our democracy.

Maury Blackman, CEO of Accela.

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