Imagine being appointed to a position within city government that never existed before.
Imagine that position being in America’s second largest city, 460 square miles, populated by 4 million people, employing 40,000.
And now imagine that position being created to open said city’s myriad data points, so that individuals and corporations can sift through that data in order to improve the city itself.
Such is the role of Abhi Nemani, LA’s first-ever Chief Data Officer. Prior to working for the city, Nemani helped run Code for America (link), a nonprofit which helps cities worldwide use tech & data to change the relationship between the city and its government.
Since starting to work directly for Los Angeles, he has been encouraged by the optimism from the various departments — rather than being bogged down by bureaucracy, the spirit of every one he has talked to has been more like, “What else, can we do? What else can we try?”
Nemani started first by, “Thinking about how the city can use data to better serve the people, both in terms of using the data to make better decisions, and using the data to be more transparent to its citizens and understand what the business of government is. At the end of the day this is a public institution and we want to make sure you have access and a better understanding of what we do here.”
This data includes everything from where the potholes are to where crime is happening, to everything in between — permits, park locations, crime & fire data for people to understand whats going on in their neighborhoods.
This data, of which there are over 300 data sets so far, is all available at data.lacity.org (link), and can be view like an spreadsheet, visualized in charts, graphs, and maps, or downloaded and plugged into apps and sites as you see fit.
No mean feat for a city the size of LA, which has gone from zero to #3 in the list of most publicly-accessible-data cities, in less than a year’s time.
Nemani’s biggest challenge has been, “How do we go from information to insight?” and a lot of that insight has come from the human element, adding context to the data itself per General Manager reviews established by Mayor Garcetti, in order to understand each department’s metrics — tracking the things that matter, in order to help everyone do their jobs more effectively & efficiently.
The departments were asked, “What are the key metrics, and are we getting the key data to understand and support them. With today’s platforms, it’s relatively turnkey to do pretty sophisticated analysis. And part of [the process] is opening up the data for citizens to tell us what we should be looking at.”
For nearly a decade, the police department has relied on ComStat (computerized statistics) data and matched it up with anecdotal information (new gangs, blighted buildings) during weekly meetings in order to marry modern technological analysis with human intelligence. Now, all the departments (such as fire, sanitation, parks & rec, and planning) run similar exercises in order to best match resources with areas that need the most attention.
The biggest challenges so far have been what Nemani lists as “Diversity, inclusion, access, and fit,” — in other words, making sure that citizens of all demographics have access to this data in order to understand how to use the data in order to improve their relationship with the local government.
One of the exciting things about government data Nemani sees is taking that information from city hall and putting it in your pocket. Early uses of this information has ranged from city-run apps to snap & report potholes; to Trulia and Zillow using inspection data on LA-based real estate; CityGrows showing new city permitting; partnering with Yelp to Health Code Ratings (with descriptions of violations) in its restaurant reviews; and apps like ParkMe being able to display nearby parking spaces and prices.
And given city-sponsored initiatives like the TechLA hackathon (which drew over 1500 people to City Hall on a Saturday), you can expect a lot more practical applications to emerge from this data initiative.
Says Nemani, “The next frontier for open government data is integration, and really putting it into the citizen experience where the citizens are.”
It is leveraging these free assets, this open government data, to fuel businesses, that is going to grow the next generation of apps & sites we use in the coming years.
And it is with such goals that Nemani hopes that the city’s open data initiatives serve as a model for neighboring townships, as well as cities the world over.