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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Will L.A.'s Next Mayor Go Geek?

Paresh Dave |
April 5, 2013 | 2:00 a.m. PDT

Executive Director

This article is part of an ongoing content partnership between Neon Tommy and L.A. Currents.

New York may be one of the oldest cities in the country, but it is charting the future when it comes to harnessing public data to improve its citizens’ lives. Whether it is data about which restaurants are clogging sewers or which cars have amassed the most parking tickets or even which baby names are most popular, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has accelerated digital transparency in the nation’s largest city.

But here in Los Angeles, efforts to catch up to the Big Apple are moving at a pace similar to that of the I-405 at dusk. In L.A., the innovations that New York City has already realized exist at best on whiteboards somewhere in City Hall, or worse still, in the back of someone’s mind.

“It's worse than you think,” said David Eaves, an open-government consultant. “If you don’t have even any of the outward facing things in place, like a chief data officer or a portal for open data, then you’re really far behind.”

Against the backdrop of an extremely tight mayoral runoff election, there was a glimmer of progress in L.A. last week when a City Council committee passed a motion to test an open-data regime. If the motion becomes law, data about traffic, crime, parks, budgets, and much more would become easily accessible in a format that coders could manipulate for novel uses.

Outside of pledges to develop the local tech industry, the topic of digital data hasn’t been a major focus in the race between Democrats Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti. Both say they support cost-effective solutions to help the city improve its performance. But in dozens of debates in the primary, scant words were dedicated to an open-data government.

Bloomberg launched New York’s open-data program in 2009, though it didn’t become law until last year. The legislation recently prompted a gushing New York Times profile of the mayor’s “Geek Squad” — a group of city workers who crunch the newly accessible numbers to remedy all sorts of municipal woes. New York also boasts a “Code Corps,” a team of tech wizards from the private sector who can offer coding help when natural disaster strikes — a National Guard of sorts for the digital side of life.

Hosting all the data online costs taxpayers about $200,000 a year, said Albert Webber, the city’s program coordinator for open data. His team started with just two employees, but has grown to eight. He said the mayor’s focus on getting city departments to funnel data onto the Web has made all the difference for the project.

“Once we had backing from a high level, it just trickled down,” Webber said. “It took a lot of bugging of city agencies originally, but then they started reaching out to us.”

Webber also praised the city’s open-data law, which he said ensures the gains made can’t be rolled back after Bloomberg leaves office at the end of the year and is replaced by a new administration.

In Los Angeles, City Councilman Garcetti has specifically called for opening city data, and he authored the motion that’s now headed to the full council. Asked what had impeded progress since he first broached the idea of an open-data initiative two years ago, Garcetti said, “You can propose things as a legislator. You can do them as mayor.”

He said he would make data a priority by creating a new position for it and appointing a “true” chief technology officer.

“I look forward this fall to seeing the city opening the doors to data sharing, citizen participation, hackathons, and other ways we can build a truly 21st-century government,” Garcetti said following a recent campaign event.

Greuel’s campaign hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.

At a campaign event at UCLA this week, she vowed to make L.A. “the most transparent city government in America” by creating a website that would track how the city spends money in real time.

Greuel also criticized Garcetti for offering change for the sake of change.

 “I want L.A. to be the best L.A. that we can be — not a new Manhattan, as my opponent wants,” she said, according to a prepared text of the speech. “I want to harness the creative capital of the world to ensure that ‘change’ represents progress, improvement, and perpetual forward motion.”

In recent months, the city has made strides in the digital sphere: Its reach on social media is up by 25 percent from last year, and the city relaunched its website in February. On Monday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled the city’s first mobile application. The MyLA311 app on Android and iOS allows users to complain about potholes, pay their water and power bills, and find nearby parks and libraries. To put that in perspective, New York became the first city to release a similar app four years ago.

Bret VandenBos, a former Villaraigosa aide who oversaw development of the mobile app, said the MyLA311's user interface surpasses that of Philadelphia — widely considered the best interface until now.

Reviewers of the MyLA311 app have agreed so far. One reviewer from the Google Play store further alluded to the possibilities of open data: “Too bad we can’t see the problems other users are reporting so we can track the progress. . . . Can’t wait for MyLA311 2.0.”

If L.A.’s next mayor is willing to invest significant political capital in reorienting government technology from an inward enterprise focus to an outward consumer focus, experts say the possibilities for transparency, accountability, and efficiency are infinite in the nation’s second- largest city.

Eaves said politicians tend to see technology departments as places where they need to control costs. Lost are the departments’ potential to open data, crowdsource solutions, and save money.

L.A. has shown innovation in the past, as Eaves pointed out. L.A. was the first city to require that restaurants publicly display health-inspection letter grades. But San Francisco took the idea a step further by teaming up with business directory and review site Yelp to get the grades out to the public.

Yo Yoshida is the CEO of Appallicious and has been involved with San Francisco’s open-data program. San Francisco passed the nation’s first open-data law in 2010. He said open data represented a different form of infrastructure, and was no different than a road, tunnel, or bridge.

“You’re starting to see an industry form around open data,” he said.

Fearing that they are falling behind other cities, San Francisco’s political leaders are proposing the creation of a new chief data officer position to oversee an acceleration of data releases. The new position may be created as early as this week.

“If your technology is not relevant or up to date, you can’t progress as a civilization or city,” Yoshida said. “You have to build for the 21st century.”

A report last December by the Center for Technology in Government at the State University of New York at Albany was highly critical of most open-data initiatives. The report said many programs were unsuccessful because they failed to capture the interest of the tech community or the general populace.

A spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg said New York has been successful because it set clear goals, priorities, and objectives when releasing data. The city started with modest goals and then worked its way up.

“Part of the reason we’ve been so successful overall is because of a chief digital officer who’s really engaging with the local tech community,” spokesman Jake Goldman said, referring to mayoral appointee Rachel Haot.

After Hurricane Sandy last fall, New York city officials received tons of inquiries from tech professionals who wanted to help with the recovery. Figuring out how to vet these coders and developers and effectively share data with them became a dilemma for city officials.

That led to the development of Code Corps, a network of volunteers who hailed from tech titans like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. Code Corps can mobilize quickly and build projects that the city doesn’t have the bandwidth to complete when it is facing an emergency. The group is currently awaiting its first preparation assignment.

Here in L.A., we are doing the equivalent of staring at the spinning rainbow ball. When the University of Southern California’s engineering school launched its start-up incubator last week there was no mention of joint government initiatives or political support.

On the campaign trail, both Greuel and Garcetti have talked about partnering with local universities to create incubators. USC’s information technology program director Ashish Soni acknowledged in an email, “Yes, we did beat them to the punch.”

The open data pilot the City Council is currently considering would cost taxpayers nothing, city officials say. A four-month pilot program could begin as early as June and would involve a limited number of datasets. San Francisco currently works with about 500 public datasets, while New York has about 1,100.

Eaves said one of the things open data could be used for in L.A. is generating ideas to make the city even more entertaining.

“If any city would have the culture to be looking at that,” Eaves said, “it would be Los Angeles.”

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