California legislature looks to open up government data

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The California legislature is considering a trio of bills that would crack open the state's vast amounts of public data. The seemingly small changes they require, including dictating the electronic file types and tracking systems that governments use, aim to make data easier for citizens to access and analyze.

The Sunlight Foundation, an nonprofit organization that advocates for government transparency, writes that the bills would help the overall state catch up with some of its largest cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Currently, only a sliver of state government data makes it to the state's anemic online portal, data.ca.gov. And though some cities share some data online, many local governments don't have the inclination or resources to follow suit.

The open data bills making the rounds in Sacramento would affect government data at all levels, from the state to the local level. One bill would create a Chief Data Officer for the state.

A recent report by the advocacy group MASSPIRG ranked California dead last in spending transparency, noting that spending by individual agencies or departments isn't collected in one place, rather scattered across several government web pages. This "bureaucratic fragmentation" lead to California ranking last for the second year in a row.

The bills currently in the legislature aim to bolster transparency at all levels of government. They include:

  • AB 1215—This bill would give California its first Chief Data Officer, a position appointed by the governor. This staffer would require state agencies to make data public, and would create technical standards for publishing data on the data.ca.gov. The text of the bill, by San Francisco Assembly Member Phil Ting, notes that state agencies keep huge quantities of data on "health, business, public safety, labor data, transportation, parks, and recreation." 
  • AB 169—San Diego Assembly Member Brian Maienschein introduced this bill, which compels state and local government agencies to turn over records in the electronic formats in which they are held, at no cost. That means no more printouts of spreadsheets, which make data nearly impossible to analyze. AB 169 would apply only to records that an agency describes as "open" on its website—a potentially large loophole for any agency that chooses to tweak its wording. School districts wouldn't have to comply.
  • SB 272—Introduced by Senator Robert Hertzberg, who represents the San Fernando Valley, this bill would require that local government agencies create catalogs detailing their data systems. That may sound like a no-brainer, but such lists can be difficult to come by, especially at the local level. And not knowing what data an agency maintains can make it difficult for journalists, researchers and citizens to find and request the information they seek. Like AB 169, it would reimburse costs to local agencies.

The bills are all in very early stages. None have even come up for committee votes yet.

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