#OpenData just got a teeny bit more open

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A map showing real-estate development projects as of the end of 2012. Data visualization from the city's Open Data Portal.

We were disheartened when, after submitting some fairly innocuous questions to the Mayor’s Chief Innovation Officer, Jay Nath, we received zero answers. By the time the Guardian’s annual Freedom of Information issue hit stands yesterday, we were still out in the cold. (Shameless plug: Pick up a print edition of this week’s paper for our flow chart on how to file Sunshine requests, designed by our illustrious Art Director Brooke Robertson.)

Nath, who helped start the city's Open Data program, responded to our emails and tweets (apologetically) by saying he was awaiting the green light from the Mayor’s Office of Communications. Which begs the question: In a city so outwardly committed to transparency, why can’t the Mayor’s Office of Communications entrust a program expert to share information about information-sharing software?

Anyway, the day after we ran our story, Nath did respond in an email. The first objective of Open Data is to “increase transparency,” he told us.

Other goals are to “drive economic development” and “foster the creation of new services and analysis by our community.” The inspiration behind it came from President Barack Obama, who on his first day in office “issued a memo on open government that heralded their open data program Data.gov," Nath explained. "With this precedent, the city recognized an opportunity to share local data with the public.” 

Head over to the city's Open Data Portal and you can poke around for info on everything from real-estate development, to restaurant health inspection scores, to city salary ranges by job classification.

As Nath pointed out, there are also over 30 datasets around campaign finance. That’s a good thing – but there’s still room for improvement. Last year, after attending a city hackathon where transparency advocates hoped to spur creation of an app to track lobbying, campaign contributions and real-estate development, Adriel Hampton of the San Francisco Technology Democrats noted that this was impossible due to a lack of information. “Despite millions in spending on … online transparency measures, access to data in these areas is woefully lacking,” Hampton wrote.

Nath said the annual cost is $40,000 per year for software. He also shared his vision for future expansion. “In terms of new services, I see applications that mash up data from multiple public and private sources to create a seamless experience,” he said. “For example, imagine a tourism app that helps you navigate the city via public transit, taxis, car / bike sharing, biking, walking, etc.”

So how does Open Data affect public records requests under the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance? “Government can use open data to reduce costs by pro-actively providing information that is often requested through FOIA,” Nath told us, referring to the Freedom of Information Act. “For example, by releasing real-time transit data, transit riders have dozens of ways to know when their next bus is coming. This new and immediate access to information has resulted in 21.7% fewer SF 311 calls – and at $2 per call – that yielded a savings of over $1 million a year.”

An interesting thing about data is that it can be totally neutral until it’s harnessed for a particular purpose, with clever visualization and presentation. Just ask the producer of this video on wealth distribution, which has been making the rounds.

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A public records request to the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors produces three-pages of information about how $1.1 million in slush funds has been spent since July:

http://tinyurl.com/bf8ro99

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