California's Lieutenant Governor makes a push for open government, but the state remains a mostly closed book

By Dan Raile , written on March 28, 2014

From The News Desk

Yesterday, the State of California took a giant leap for statekind, though to most it will likely seem a small step. The occasion was the launch of the new California State Lands Commission data portal, the result of a partnership brokered by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom with Mountain View-based Opengov, a company that creates data-visualization software for the web.

It’s an encouraging development in a nationwide push for open government data, in the name of transparency, public engagement and government efficiency.

“All Californians now have the opportunity to analyze budgets, leases and contract royalties within the State Lands Commission. But all state agencies should be doing the same thing. The launch of this site is an important step toward a new default in government - open government,” Newsom told PandoDaily.

While the data available via State Lands is pretty interesting (revenues of almost $400 million in royalties from oil and gas in Long Beach alone, 62% of total State Lands revenue in 2012) and the interface is slick and pleasing. But much of its importance is as a proof-of concept for open data, which so far has seen the most movement at the local level.

Newsom has been a leader of the open government movement since his days as Mayor of San Francisco. He signed into law the DataSF program that has recently seen a renewed push of official support – in early March San Francisco hired its first Chief Data Officer, Joy Bonaguro, and through the newly-launched Entrepreneurs in Residence program has forged partnerships with private startups to deliver data-visualization in citizen-friendly interfaces.

“The need to open the vaults of government data is a long-time coming,” Newsom said.

In Sacramento, Newsom has found less fecund ground for his open data aspirations. California was an early entrant into the arena when former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched the site in 2010. Since that initial push, though, the program has languished and clearly been deprioritized: only two data sets have been added to since 2011, and the site design is trapped in the .gov doldrums. It’s a problem of funding and of the voluntary nature of data collection by California state agencies.

Under current conditions, today’s State Lands rollout is the first step in a process that, if it moves forward, will proceed in starts and fits towards a cobbled-together amalgamation of the state’s official data. But Newsom clearly launched the OpenGov/State Lands Commission partnership with an eye to a bigger impact.

He used the opportunity of his chairmanship of the State Lands Commission (a post given to California's Lieutenant Governor in odd-numbered years) to forge the OpenGov partnership and present a polished example of its potential to the world.

In a co-written guest post on the Huffington Post yesterday, Newsom expanded on his open government vision:

“Governments keep massive volumes of data, from 500 page budget documents to population statistics to neighborhood crime rates. Although raw data is a necessary component of Open Government, for it to empower citizens and officials the data must be transformed into meaningful and actionable insights.”
Governments have a monopoly on certain types of data, and in an age when data is increasingly valuable, it’s important that these assets are shared in ways that benefit everyone. Most non-sensitive data that governments retain is theoretically available to the public, but the process of obtaining that data varies greatly among jurisdictions and departments, and usually involves a quixotic romp through the wasted plains of agency web-sites, tilting at PDF’s.

"This is public data, but it is not always available. The state of the art in financial communication is publishing the annual budget in a PDF on the government website. partners with governments to make their key financial data instantly accessible, understandable, and useful to the government administrators and the public," says OpenGov CEO Zac Bookman.

In other states, executive orders by governors have made open data the default setting across all agencies. The Lieutenant Gavinator seems to be doing everything within the power of his office to restart this conversation in Sacramento. Here’s hoping his boss takes notice.

Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the wrong location for Mountain View-based Opengov.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]