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Oakland City Council Passes Open Data Policy

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, October 17 2013

The Oakland City Council Tuesday unanimously passed legislation requiring Oakland to adopt an Open Data Policy with the goal of making city data publically accessible in machine-readable format.

The legislation mandates that the city and its departments establish a list of datasets that can be made public and aren't covered by privacy concerns, explained Bruce Stoffmacher, a policy analyst for City Councilmember Libby Schaaf, who spearheaded the legislation. "Just having a list of what datasets the city owns and has access to, just having that information is useful," he said. That list can then help the city prioritize how to release public data, he said.

Oakland already releases, for example, crime data for the past three months, he noted, but was often using an "antiquated system." One goal of the new legislation is for crime reports from several past years to be accessible through Socrata, he said. "I need to be able to access data in a useable way to try and look at crime trends," he said of his own experience. "The state of our streets is abysmal, people are always asking about potholes." He said he hoped the new policy would make more data available on street grading and related issues. "We have the funding to address these issues, but we are not prioritizing correctly."

Stoffmacher said he hoped the policy would result in more freely accessible tools and platforms created by entrepreneurs and developers like Open Budget Oakland, a platform supported by coders, including the Code for America brigade OpenOakland, community advocates and city officials. Stoffmacher said the team behind the platform was able to extricate the data from the published budget even though it is not yet machine-readable.

While an earlier version of the legislation did not move forward, Stoffmacher said the city had supported the effort and had already been working on establishing an Open Data portal on Socrata, which officially went live in February 2013. "This legislation is codifying it in a bit more of a fundamental way to put a bit more teeth into that the city has to make this commitment," Stoffmacher said. Currently, he said many agencies still function with a "paper and pen" mentality or the general practice to "xerox a document and then create a PDF of it."

As some models for the legislation, he cited San Francisco's 311 system and New York City's Open Data efforts.

"I get people calling me every day about different problems on their streets. I wish I didn't have more phone calls and could spend more time working on policy," he said, noting that he felt that that this was less of an issue in a city with a system like San Francisco's. "In parallel to working on entrenched crime and economic development agencies, [this effort ] can make people feel better about government."

Schaaf's press release on the legislation's passage noted that the policy was drafted with the help of the Urban Strategies Council, which organized a roundtable and a Google Hangout, and then published the draft as an open Google Doc that others could edit.

"Strong, sustainable open data policies get to the heart of how communities share knowledge and decision-making power. Oakland's collaborative policy-drafting was a strong demonstration that tapping into this potential can have great benefits, even at the start of a community's open data journey, and we hope other communities will take notice," Laurenellen McCann, national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, said in a statement.