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San Francisco looks to boost open data access after falling behind curve

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The Recreation and Park Department app is one example of The City’s drive to share data with the public, but supervisors are pushing for greater access. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • The Recreation and Park Department app is one example of The City’s drive to share data with the public, but supervisors are pushing for greater access.

San Francisco has fallen behind in the open-data movement, but city officials say a new proposal will once again put it on the forefront.

Three years ago, The City adopted its first open-data ordinance to encourage departments to release their data sets — i.e., restaurant health scores or details on special events in The City. But the effort appears to have wilted, and cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have since created more aggressive initiatives than San Francisco.

“Unfortunately we have fallen a little bit behind,” said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. “We have about 500 city-maintained data sets. But there are literally thousands of data sets that we could put out to the public.”

Chiu said departments are releasing data sets that show them “in their best light” when the open-data movement is supposed to be about “where can we improve, take risks and be innovative.”

For government watchdogs, the open data can assist in holding city officials accountable. For the technology industry, it can translate into business.

On Thursday, the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee approved legislation introduced by Chiu and Mayor Ed Lee that would create a new city government job, chief data officer, to be appointed by Lee. If the legislation is approved by the full board next week, it also would require each city department to nominate an open-data department coordinator. And departments would be required to disclose the data sets they currently maintain and adopt a schedule for releasing them for public use on The City’s open-data site, www.DataSF.org .

“We are creating this organizational structure, a network within our city family, to really accelerate the release of data to the public,” said Jay Nath, Lee’s chief innovation officer, adding that the proposal “re-establishes our national leadership in open data.”

Tech industry workers such as Alex Maxa, a founder of the CurbTXT texting program designed to help drivers avoid vehicle tows, are calling for more data access.

“To improve our service, we need access to The City’s towing data in real time so that CurbTXT can instantly text people that their car has been officially targeted by The City,” Maxa said.

The possibilities abound on all fronts for open-data advocates.

“If you think about the history of American government, data has really moved forward the business of government and reform,” said Peter Hirshberg, co-founder of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit group on Market Street linking art with technology. “Today, we live in this unique moment where we are pouring out more of it than ever before, and most importantly there are these enormous communities that want to jump in and help.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com