Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the City of Palo Alto, Calif., is known for his support of open data and has had his work recognized by the White House. His work has spanned both the private and public sectors. In 2013 he was recognized as one of the “25 doers, dreamers, and drivers in government in America” by Government Technology. He has also recently been named the top social government CIO on Twitter and his blog was named one of the top 50 must-read in government.

What do you see as the value of open data for governmentscities in particularand how did you come to hold that belief?

For too many public agencies, we live in an age of constraints: budgets shrinking, flat or declining revenue, not enough time to do everything that needs to be done. The problems can seem intractable. But there are glimmers of hope. While governments grapple with debt of all types, there is one area where we have a largely untapped surplus. That’s data! Every agency collects and stores an abundance of data. Just like we’re seeing in the private sector, new tools and skills are enabling us to tap into this data in completely new ways, resulting in opportunities we’ve never had before.

What excites me is that the core raw material—the data— already exists, and governments just need to use it in smart ways. One of the approaches is to not only make entire datasets easily available to anyone who wants them, but importantly, to make the datasets machine-readable, so that entrepreneurs, software engineers, and others can build high-value solutions. This is open data. Not only can this address essential city needs, but it can create new value that can lead to economic growth.

Lastly, beyond the opportunities for solution building and economic growth, governments that open their data and make it easily accessible can build trust with their communities through transparency. The long-term result can be a more engaged citizenry and a healthier democracy. This makes me excited about the work we do every day.

What sort of results have you gotten from your open data initiative, and what’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to deal with?

We’re just at the very start of the open data movement. We’re in the phase of any new phenomenon where people are first learning about the terminology and coming to terms with what the domain is all about. For this reason, expectations should be conservative at this point.

In Palo Alto, we’ve made available many valuable datasets for our community. It’s easy to view and consume five years of budget data. You can get access to permit information that we publish in near real-time. Our community is beginning to appreciate the seamless access they now have to essential information on what makes our city tick. Our local media appreciate that they can easily access staff salaries without having to make a special request. Organizations that study tree data can now easily visualize and download details of every tree in our city. We also know about several companies that are using our data to create new value. One example is Building Eye, a startup that uses our permit data to make it easy for a wide range of stakeholders to visualize construction in the city.

building eye screenshot

Many of the results of open data at our city won’t even be known to us. Remember, we’ve given the keys to anyone and they don’t need to report back to us.

Because we’re at the start of this process, we’re still in an education mode. We have to convince departments one-by-one of the benefits, and we have to make sure that we address risks such as privacy breaches and bad data. But together we’re winning the argument and these growing pains will be behind us in the medium term. Done right, open data is a win-win opportunity for everyone.

What advice can you give to CIOs who aren’t fortunate enough to work in a well-to-do, technologically savvy area such as Palo Alto?

One of the biggest misconceptions of initiating an open data project is that it is cost-prohibitive. Fortunately there exists a wide range of platforms today that include open-source and low-cost options. Relative to other entry-level IT projects, an open data platform will be on the very low end of cost. While there is some effort to get the system up and running, once it’s up, there is minimal effort to maintain it. For a project that can effectively change the game for an agency, this low cost and effort should not be a deterrent.

Equally, open data is not about techies. Everyone understands why easy access to government data—which, by the way, belongs to the people—is a good thing. Sure, not every community has an abundance of software engineers in its area like the City of Palo Alto, but this profession is growing fast and location in a global marketplace is no longer a constraint.

Open data—and data in general—offers unprecedented opportunities for cities. Today there is a small group of champions who are educating and showing what’s possible. Tomorrow, there will be more, and after that, open data will be mainstream. I’m confident that open data will be business as usual for most cities within just a few years.

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