City of Palo Alto Opens Its Arms to Open Government
#Palo Alto, Calif., is already well known as a global center of technology innovation, with companies from Google to Facebook having once called it home. However, the city itself hasn’t fully embraced technology’s potential to disrupt local government — until now.
The city of Palo Alto is announcing Tuesday the launch of a new #open data platform that represents a first step to becoming a truly digital city. The platform, powered by Junar, will give Palo Alto’s #tech-savvy residents and all other interested developers a wealth of easily consumable data in hopes that they will go off and create new, useful applications that tie the city’s residents closer together and change their view of government from a provider of services to a facilitator of community building.
Imagine, for example, a developer creating an app with public data that lets users “adopt” a roadside storm drain and volunteering to clear it if it clogs — such an app would create a sense of community involvement for the user and save the city money. That’s not an original idea, though — it’s already been developed in Seattle.
At first, the City will be releasing the following info to developers as part of the project (this is all already public data, but the City is making it more easy to play with it):
2010 census data for Palo Alto.
Pavement condition ratings.
City tree locations.
Bicycle paths and hiking trails.
Creek water level.
Mashable spoke with Palo Alto’s Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental and city manager James Keene, who are at the forefront of the city’s open data initiative, to learn more about the project.
Q&A With Palo Alto Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental and city manager James Keene
Mashable: What’s at the core of Palo Alto’s open data initiative?
Jim: “We see our city itself as a prototype city. How can we take ideas to spark a deeper level of civic participation? This is about value creation for us, but it’s also about offering a way for people to belong to a community and share the responsibility for it in a more interactive way. We see this as making government more of an open book. A lot of data and information exists out there, but in many ways it’s lying fallow because of the unusable format it’s in. We want to be turning this data into projects that create a more informed citizenry.”
Jonathan: “Jim and I have been thinking long and hard about how you can deliver better government through the use of technology. It starts with data, with having a platform where we can serve up rich data points to our city and anyone else who’s interested in it. We’re starting at a place where we can build our expertise and take the community with us. They’ll give us strong, important feedback and we’ll go on this journey together.”
Mashable: It sounds like you’re turning the city itself into a startup.
Jonathan: “There’s a moving crew in the IT area pulling out cubicles and furniture and rebuilding it to look like the community of which we’re a part — the startup community. We want to act like a lean startup. That means that we’re not going to get into analysis, paralysis and have a long drawn-out process. We’re going to try stuff, get feedback. Some projects will work and some won’t. There’s too much happening and too much opportunity for things to take a year and a half.”
Mashable: Developers in other cities, such as New York and Boston, have done impressive projects with their government’s open data. Can Palo Alto contribute to that trend and become a model of #open government in its own right?
Jonathan: “Somebody has to be at the forward edge. The impression from outside is that government is too bureaucratic and can’t get things done. We don’t believe that, we’re the change makers and we can get things done. We already have a very informed and engaged community, and we see that as a foundation to take this as far as we can and create some road maps for other cities.”
Jim: “Our hope is that by our efforts and modeling it for other cities and communities is that we build public trust in government. We’re not just reinforcing expectation that government should provide services, but that it helps facilitate citizenship. If we can test drive this and show how it can be done, I do think it’s scalable to other cities. Nobody will dispute anywhere that a more informed community and more open government in the end isn’t a good result for any city in this country.”
Mashable: So you believe you can create better community through open data?
Jim: “We know that people want to be more connected and engaged in the community. We have pretty outmoded forums for community building — public hearings and meetings, etc. We’re hopeful that by our open data initiative, we’ll discover new channels for communication and participation in ways that will make our cities better and more effective.”
Palo Alto’s data portal can be accessed right here. What kind of apps would you create with a city’s data? Share your ideas in the comments.