2015 should be the year for open data in California. A new crop of state lawmakers and constitutional officers, combined with activity underway in state and local governments, are pushing California closer to a “tipping point” where the demand and use of data can truly transform the public sector.

Other states – including New York, Texas, Maryland, and Utah – have all jumped on the Open Data bandwagon. In 2014, California cities, including LA and San Diego showed their commitment by hiring chief data officers. At the state level, the California Health and Human Services Agency is -growing its open data offerings, adding departments and data sets to its portal that started last year with public health data. The data-rich portal is essentially a pilot for the rest of state government.

The pioneers are demonstrating that data is a public resource that can stimulate economic investment, inform policy choices, guide public mangers to improve results and deepen citizen involvement in public decisions and community activities.

And it should be pointed out that California private and nonprofit sectors are literally creating the tools of public sector innovation.

Despite these advancements, California’s public sector is on the trailing edge of this important development curve.

In fact, a leading open data advocate told participants at CA Fwd’s September Data Forum in San Francisco that he “worried Ohio would have the best Open Data policy in the nation, leaving California in the dust.”

With the right steps, California could lead

The Brown Act, the cornerstone of the state’s open government policies, is older than the Xerox Machine. The Brown Act didn’t envision the fax machine, let alone Snapchat.

Over the last year CA Fwd has been talking with leaders across the country and convening experts within California to understand where and how governments have captured the value of open data and built policies and procurements to encourage the evolution.

California can and should learn from lessons elsewhere – including data policies, procurement, system architectures and management practices. Replicating best practices for managing and disseminating government data, and supporting these models through statutory changes, is essential to unlocking the potential of data.

There’s  gold in “them thar”  data

One valuable first step is to develop inventories of available data in state and local agencies. This allows users – managers in public agencies, service providers and employers outside of government – to identify the data that will help them do their job better.

Data officers in other states report to CA Fwd they had “no clue” how to identify the most valuable data, and often underwent lengthy processes to determine what was relevant.  In California, the passage of Proposition 42 in June 2014 presents an opportunity to expand reporting and data-driven transparency at the local level, provided the public and public officials know what’s there and in what format.

In many instances, circumstances will set priorities. In New York, disaster recovery is top-of-mind. Financial transparency is a driver in Ohio, and water and other resource issues are elevated in Texas. By creating a comprehensive inventory of California data, those looking to solve public problems or create private jobs (or both simultaneously) will be able to identify the data needed to make those advances.

Rapid and Universal Release of Data is not necessarily a good approach

Blanket or “Open by Default” policies give advocates a lever to access key information, but the experience in some states are that “Open by Default” policies can strain the resources of public agencies and dilute the value of data unless there are common standards and resources for managing data integrity. And without the resources, those policies overpromise, making the job of smart and supportive data officers even harder as they try to build political support and public value. A better approach would be to focus resources on “high value” data, and put an emphasis on metadata — or structural and descriptive tagging of the information.

Opening Data takes more than a policy

The progress of many policy leaders has stalled because they have been unwilling to make the investments needed to unlock the value of data.  Ohio’s lawmakers have offered to provide $10,000 grants to cities to help make data available, still the proposal stalled in part because the Municipal League felt this was inadequate.

Texas, meanwhile is hoping others will make the investment. State law permits a state agency to “accept a gift or grant for the purpose of posting one or more of the agency’s high-value data sets on an Internet website.” We have seen offers to gift technology to California agencies stymied by onerous procurement processes, another area our state should take heed.

Data can move California forward faster

CA Fwd is managing projects that are catalyzing middle-class jobs, cost-effective public services and bolstering the accountability of government. Data is a powerful tool in each of those domains – indeed, it is often the missing link.

Our partners in local governments are striving to use data to analyze costs and impacts, design better strategies and manage and evaluate those programs.  We have partnered with local governments to hold regional forums in recent months in San Bernardino, San Jose and Long Beach. The next event will be in Fresno on February 4; please join us.

In these forums, local agencies and entrepreneurs are sharing ideas and discoveries. More broadly, CA Fwd is promoting innovations, frequently built with home-grown technologies, that are more quickly being taken up by governments outside the Golden State. The forums are also a critical bridge to smaller jurisdictions without resources to move forward on new programs that cross numerous internal departments.

These regional conversations will be distilled into a showcase of best practices and next steps at the March 2014 Summit on Data in Sacramento.

Given the progress in recent years to ease partisan gridlock, restore the state’s fiscal health, and improve the relationship between the state and local government, 2015 should be the year to radically deploy data in the quest for more middle class jobs, higher quality public services and greater accountability in government.

Open Data could be the title for the next chapter in California’s comeback story.

Cross-posted at CalFwd Reporting.