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The Super-Boring Change in City Law That Could Be Huge

Scott Lucas | November 25, 2013 | Story Politics

Last week, the Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors unanimously recommended approval of Supervisor Mark Farrell’s open data ordinance. The legislation is technical and non-controversial—which usually means a banal measure like the one that passed a few weeks ago allowing residential buildings to rent five extra parking spaces to non-residents. But this one is different—it's actually important.

The bill, which builds on legislation by Board President David Chiu last year, would standardize the way that the city bureaucracy stores its data—in machine readable formats, not pdfs. It would also set up a one-year timeline for implementing open data standards. That doesn't sound like much, unless you've ever tried to extract data from a pdf format and then looked up to wonder what happened to the last week. With the ability to easily access the data that the city already has, the tasks of researchers and entrepreneurs will be simplified.

“One of my largest frustrations is that we live in the global hub of tech innovation,” said Farrell. “Our ability to use that to impact residents is far behind that.”

The City’s attempt to make its information more readily available has already begun to bear fruit. Yelp has begun to post public health scores for city restaurants in its listings, and the NextMUNI system uses real time data to show transportation wait times. But the major impacts are still to be felt.

Several entreprenuers think that open city data could be an enormous boon. “Imagine you want to create a coffee shop,” said Julian Garcia, the CEO and founder of InstaGIS, which creates mapping software to help businesses understand market trends. “If you had information, say on a map, of where the other coffee shops were, what the crime was like, and where the transportation was, you’d be empowered to make a better decision.” Farrell points to potential uses in public transportation and safety, but it’s hard to predict what the private sector will come up with. A recent McKinsey study suggested that open data across the country could stimulate $3 trillion to $5 trillion worth of economic activity nationwide. “We’re creating an industry,” said Yo Yoshida, the CEO and founder of Appallicious, whose recent Neighborhood Score app provides block-by-block health scores for the city.

There are challenges that come with the initiative as well. Privacy concerns exist, though Farrell argued that the legislation has been written so as to protect personally identifying information. It’s no different from census data, said Gonzalez. “We know that there are this many houses in a block, not who has what email address.”

Perhaps the larger challenge is changing the way in which city government operates. “The old way of doing business as a government is operating in the stone ages,' said Farrell. "What you saw with companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar was that technical innovation took over and built up consumer demand around the government and existing industry. City government needs to partner with tech. If we don’t do that, the tech community will continue to work around us.”

“Can you imagine if the federal government had put the health care website on GitHub so we could have had a bug check?” said Yoshida. "The government has had these walls of secrecy and fear.”

The legislation is expected to be taken up by the full Board on Tuesday.

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