3 bills that could make 2015 a landmark year for open data in California

The California Capitol. (Photo credit: decafdennis/Flickr)

While America’s largest cities have all committed to making their public data available online, some of the country’s largest states have been a little slower in adopting comprehensive official policies on open data (although New York, Texas and Illinois have all joined the movement!). California, the nation’s most populous state, is looking very likely to see substantial progress this year as its legislature considers passing several open data bills during the current session.

California is rich in open data expertise. The state features the leadership of municipal open data programs in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento (and West Sacramento) and San Diego, with a new county-wide open data initiative recently coming online in Los Angeles County. Individual state agencies have demonstrated their strong interest in opening state data — most impressively, the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS) has created a new open data portal that aims to provide additional public value from the system’s enormous quantities of nonconfidential health data. In addition, the open data movement in California is exceptionally forward-thinking in terms of outreach and networking across the state’s varied communities of data-users. CHHS celebrated its recent release of new data with a well-attended Health and Human Services Open DataFest, aiming to increase public attention to and use of the state’s data. The agency has also been progressive in making use of public-private partnership opportunities, connecting with institutions like the California Healthcare Foundation that are interested in supporting connections between the state’s open data and its growing ecosystem of data users.

Now, the state is considering three different approaches to increasing the availability of open data in California.

  • SB 272 asks California’s local governments to create public enterprise catalogs that list all of the datasets they maintain — a goal close to Sunlight’s heart. Increasing public awareness of what datasets are held by local governments represents a critical step toward unlocking the power of local data across the state. We’ve been watching the potential that California’s legislature will increase the availability of local open data, as aided by the power of 2014’s Proposition 42, and this bill would represent an excellent start to that process. The bill mandates collection and publication of, among other things, “a brief statement of the system [of record]’s purpose;” “a general description of categories, modules, or layers of data;” “the department that serves as the system’s primary custodian;” “how frequently system data is collected;” and “how frequently system data is updated.” You can follow progress on SB 272 via Sunlight’s Open States tool here.
  • AB 169 would also offer a useful addition to local government data management practice, increasing the accessibility of local open data by providing a useful definition of what “open” really means for municipalities that want to join the open data movement. The legislation would require that any relevant data posted online by California be made available in forms that were “retrievable, downloadable, indexable, and electronically searchable by commonly used Internet search applications;” “platform independent and machine readable;” “available to the public free of charge and without any restriction that would impede the reuse or redistribution of the public record;” and will also ensure that information released “retain[s] the data definitions and structure present when the data was compiled, if applicable.” You can follow progress on AB 169 via Open States here.
  • While those bills are both critical for freeing more local California open data, AB 1215 will be essential for moving open data forward at the state level. The bill enshrines the provision of open data as an essential state function by establishing a state chief data officer. It requires state agencies to post data to a central open data portal and to develop and publish an inventory of their public data. Helpfully, the bill digs into the question of which data to release first in high-quality public form by prioritizing the publication of agency datasets based on clear value to the public, including for the goals of increasing the accountability and responsiveness of agencies, improving the public’s knowledge of the state agency and its operations, creating economic opportunity and responding to online and offline public demand. You can follow progress on AB 1215 via Open States here.

We’re so excited about all of the progress in California’s open data movement and can’t wait to see how it all develops!