Jason Barrett
Senior Associate, Public Policy Analyst 
Business and California and Public Policy
Jason Barrett is a senior associate and public policy analyst at the Milken Institute. He monitors political activity in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and analyzes its effects on economic, financial and regulatory policies. Barrett seeks to provide decision-makers and Institute stakeholders with key information regarding relevant legislation and policies at the...
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The secret password for California? Open data

By: Jason Barrett
March 20, 2015

California is known for technological innovation. Netflix, Google and Apple (among hundreds of other pioneering companies) were founded here and the state consistently ranks among the Top 5 in the Milken Institute’s State Technology and Science Index. So why, then, does it find itself looking up at many other states when it comes to creating a cohesive open-data policy?

As a new Milken Institute report explains, California’s delay in formalizing a statewide open-data strategy puts it at risk of falling behind other states that are realizing the economic benefits of having an open-data policy. At present, each individual state agency follows its own standards for publishing data and the lack of a streamlined policy threatens to create confusion and mixed signals. To maximize ease of use for both users and agencies, the state must develop a uniform strategy that dictates how and when machine-readable data is published by its agencies.

Open data is, in short, knowledge. Government agencies collect and archive a staggering amount of data every day on everything from traffic patterns to budget allocations, and usually that data, once it serves its immediate purpose, is stored away in databases and digital archives to collect virtual dust.

But imagine if instead that data was easily accessible and comprehensible. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur, for example, could use those traffic patterns and budget figures to develop software for adjusting traffic-light patterns that reduced the average commute by 10 minutes and saved the state millions in road maintenance? Not only are such ideas possible with open data, they are inevitable. And the potential economic and government effectiveness benefits are astounding.

California businesses are already taking advantage of online open-data portals created by cities and counties that have established their own policies. The Open Data 500 cites California as home to 132 of the Top 500 companies that use open government data to generate business and develop products. Clearly, cities, counties and businesses around the state have recognized the economic impact of open data—it’s time for the state to follow suit.

Further, entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from an open-data policy in California. Through open-data initiatives, state officials could improve their relationship with the general public by offering a window into budgetary issues, state operations and other areas that will improve trust in government.

Establishing an open-data policy is not as simple as flicking a switch, though. One of the biggest hurdles is standardization—that is, implementing a standard format for data so that it may be easily transferred across multiple platforms. Without a unifying standard, government data published by one agency may be unreadable by the software platform of another. Uploaded data sets must also be digitally searchable—scanned documents won’t do.

And for long-term success, the government must also take the lead in maintaining the open-data portals it creates. This would be facilitated through the creation of a chief data officer position at the state level, whose responsibilities would be leading the development and implementation of an open-data policy and acting as the go-to person for all open-data issues within the state government.

All of these requirements can be achieved through an executive order or legislation, but the first step is for California officials to recognize the value that state data would provide to the public. From there, they can build a much-needed singular strategy. With the combination of a massive push to publish useful state data sets and the power of California’s innovative workforce, the possibilities of open data are virtually limitless.