Palo Alto’s Open Data Platform: What Transparency Looks Like?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

“I have seen the future, and it works,” remarked the Californian, Lincoln Steffens, after returning from the post-Revolution Soviet Union. Of course, he was overwhelmingly wrong.  But after returning from meeting with the City of Palo Alto’s Chief Information Officer, Jonathan Reichental, and seeing the launch of their new Open Data Platform, I know I’ve seen the future in government/public relations, and it’s engaging, transparent, and digital.

From Tammany Hall to Cudahy to the GSA, we know that corruption has always existed to varying degrees in our governing institutions, but what makes today different is the level of technology combined with public access to information. In the vast majority of municipal and state governments online availability of budget, public safety, and demographic data is still in its very early stages, but this is changing. As Reichental – a techie who’s never worked directly for government prior to landing in Palo Alto – told me recently in a meeting at City Hall, “municipal information officers are being pulled by their communities” to develop these platforms.

Now I know what you’re saying: “Well of course. But he’s in Palo Alto. Palo Alto is different.” Agreed. I know this in part because when I clicked on the “Education” panel on Open Data Palo Alto’s demographic data page, I notice that 79.3% of the city’s residents 25 years old and older have a bachelor’s degree, which I see is more than double the California average (30.1%). Without any assistance from a Palo Alto municipal employee, I found this out in 23 seconds. With Palo Alto’s Open Data Platform, you can do the same thing with community services data, utilities, parks, even creek levels. Coming soon: budget data.

But what’s that “Actions” button in the lower left part of the chart? Click on it and now things get very interesting. No longer mere spectators of easy-to-understand information about their community, tech-savvy residents can now download the actual data the city uses to create whatever charts, graphs, or applications they want. As the City notes in its press release announcing the platform’s launch, “Through challenges and hackathons, non-City employees will be able to develop applications that enhance cost efficiencies and speed of execution of City services to the community, but do not incur costs to the City.”

This is where “Government 1.0” becomes “Gov 2.0”, where public sector agencies make their data more useable (and useful) through online platforms because it is actually in their best interest. From San Diego’s Apps Challenge to Oakland’s “Code for Oakland”, municipalities are offering residents the opportunity to create useful applications that can be used by fellow residents and the municipalities alike. Cities hosting these efforts have received customized platforms to analyze education performance data, handheld apps for commuters to see exactly where that next bus is, and apps to help quickly respond to and connect with EMS in the event of a natural disaster.

So it is about faddish words like “apps” and “transparency”, but it’s also about changing the way we view our governing institutions and creating new places for community building. Reichental understands this better than most, proclaiming in a recent interview, “The impression from outside is that government is too bureaucratic and can’t get things done. We don’t believe that, we’re the change makers and we can get things done.” Municipal officials as “change makers”? Unlike some politicians who mumble on about “change”, I actually believe Reichental.

As Palo Alto’s city manager, Jim Keene, noted in the same interview, while the technology is impressive, his vision for these open data efforts is not just to build helpful smartphone applications, but also to build stronger, more engaged communities: “We know that people want to be more connected and engaged in the community. We have pretty outmoded forums for community building — public hearings and meetings, etc. We’re hopeful that by our open data initiative, we’ll discover new channels for communication and participation in ways that will make our cities better and more effective.”

Keene’s goal for Palo Alto is to become America’s first “digital city”, but it also appears that the digital networks provided through the Open Data Platform, are meant to result in real person-to-person networks of engaged residents – an environment that resonates more with a New England town of the 19th century than a Silicon Valley city of the 21st. Let’s hope it, well…works.

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