A little-noticed measure on the June ballot passed by voters this week could fundamentally transform the role of government in the lives of everyday Californians and position the state to be a leader of the Big Data movement.

On its face, Proposition 42 is a simple constitutional amendment. The measure clarifies that local governments must comply with the state’s open records laws. Cities and counties will no longer be able to simply say they cannot afford to answer citizens’ requests for information.

The measure will finally force local agencies to provide key sets of data that have been unavailable. It will allow the state, for the first time, to direct what kinds of data must be made available and help turn government into a clearinghouse for vital sets of public information.

Having comprehensive, reliable public data will give technologists and policymakers alike the ability to create better solutions to help the public.

Proposition 42 will transform the role of the state from a simple deliverer of services into a platform for data that will allow the private sector to provide those services more efficiently. It will pave the way for the Uberization of public services, creating new kinds of solutions that are enabled by government, but driven by the market.  It is a 21st Century vision for what government can and should become.

People use a lot of words to describe government, but efficient is rarely one of them. But if it can be an agent for accurate and vital information, it will allow both the private and public sector to recognize inefficiencies and gaps in government services and come up with ways to fill those gaps.

It will also allow for the kind of government transparency needed to hold elected officials accountable. If implemented properly, the measure will help us gain a better understanding of what our elected representatives are up to, and whether promises that are so often attached to policy choices actually bare fruit. Did that sales tax increase aimed at improving transportation infrastructure actually help with the problem? Good, quality data can help us find that answer.

Now that Prop 42 has passed, it will unlock massive troves of data and allow the private sector to set about addressing some of our most pressing issues in the state. Already, for example, there is a movement afoot to address the current drought by mining local water consumption data. Finding data that can help solve big problems will become easier under Prop 42.

Up until now, the state of public data in California is, quite frankly, embarrassing. For example, we have no reliable statewide numbers for how many businesses are opening and closing in California, or what kinds of businesses are setting up shop or moving out of the state. Our information is haphazard and largely anecdotal, and laws are made based on hypotheses and incomplete data.

Proposition 42 will now require local governments to track specific types of information and make it available to the public.

We are already seeing the power of data and how reliable and current information can lead to better delivery of services. In Los Angeles, for example, the LAPD rolled out “predictive policing” technology that analyzes historic crime data to forecast where police resources are likely to be needed in the future.
Government can improve the lives of Californians, but it may not in the way the state has intervened in the lives of citizens throughout the 20th Century. With the passage of Proposition 42, we have increased the ability for government to evolve into a data-driven platform that better serves the people of California.