L.A. County supervisors OK creation of open-data website

Supervisors call for a central website to provide data already available through individual departments

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took a large step Tuesday toward joining the growing "open data" movement of making government statistics readily available to anyone with a computer and Internet connection.

Supervisors authorized creation of a website to be a "one-stop shop" for information on budgets, crime statistics, welfare and the like that could be used and redistributed without any legal, social or technological limitations.

The Open Data Initiative calls for the county's chief information officer to put statistics already publicly available through individual departments onto a single platform and to assemble a task force to identify other data sets at the county's disposal that could be made available in machine-readable format and added to the new open-data portal. The task force is to report to the board within 90 days.

Supervisors approved the initiative unanimously and without comment, but Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the measure, called it a historic shift in a statement released by his office.

"Our vast trove of data and public records will be readily available in a user-friendly form for the first time," Ridley-Thomas said, adding that the initiative will "encourage innovation" by entrepreneurs who might find ways to package it to create online applications, for instance. He said it also "will make the county more transparent and accountable to the people it serves."

He said the county will become "the largest municipal government in the nation to make data easily accessible" to the public.

But it is not the first. Many of the nation's large cities, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia, and some counties, including San Mateo in California, have led the way in making their vast sets of public data readily available.

The city of Los Angeles "has been doing a lot since 2013," said Emily Shaw, state and local policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for government transparency.

Shaw cited Mayor Eric Garcetti's government performance website and City Controller Ron Galperin's website, listing what Los Angeles spends on thousands of purchases — including helicopters, basketballs, and frozen rats for snakes at the zoo.

The efforts have not been without critics.

"This is a marketing website, not an open government website," open-government advocate Clay Johnson said of the mayor's website when it was unveiled in October 2013.

As most open-data efforts unfold, conflicts have developed over what should be posted and what should be withheld for privacy or security reasons. The city of Los Angeles, for example, posted job titles and salaries but not the names of the workers who receive them.

Shaw said such conflicts are part of the growing pains of the open-data movement.

"As it evolves, [officials] tend to get better at figuring this stuff out," Shaw said. "There are approaches to take to find ways to balance privacy and safety concerns with the need for information."

Through its bidding process, the county chose the privately held software company Socrata to implement the portal and host its data; the company has overseen development of open-data portals for several governments, including the city of Los Angeles. The first-year cost to the county will be $318,608, which includes startup services, such as working with the task force that will help decide what data to make available. After that, the annual cost will be $287,108, according to information released by Ridley-Thomas' office.

Although the open-data movement has been developing for years, a 2013 executive order signed by President Obama added impetus to the trend. In his order, the president said making government data easily accessible "can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation and scientific discovery that improves Americans' lives and contributes significantly to job creation."

He noted that by making weather data and the Global Positioning System freely available decades ago, the federal government led to the creation of such popular applications as navigation devices and weather newscasts.

jean.merl@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeanmerl

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