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Palo Alto looks to use open data to embrace ‘city as a platform’

Palo Alto CIO Jonathan Reichental talks about the city's vision for open data.

In the 21st century, one of the strategies cities around the world are embracing to improve services, increase accountability and stimulate economic activity is to publish open data online. The vision for New York City as a data platform earned wider attention last year, when the Big Apple’s first chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, pitched the idea to the public.

This week, the city of Palo Alto in California joined over a dozen cities around the United States and globe when it launched its own open data platform. The platform includes an application programming interface (API) which enables direct access through a RESTful interface to open government data published in a JSON format. Datasets can also be embedded like YouTube videos, as below:

“We’re excited to bring the value of Open Data to our community. It is a natural complement to our goal of becoming a leading digital city and a connected community,” said James Keene, Palo Alto City Manager, in a prepared statement. “By making valuable datasets easily available to our residents, we’re further removing the barriers to a more inclusive and transparent local government here in Palo Alto.”

The city initially published open datasets that include the 2010 census data, pavement condition, city tree locations, park locations, bicycle paths and hiking trails, creek water level, rainfall and utility data. Open data about Palo Alto budgets, campaign finance, government salaries, regulations, licensing, or performance — which would all offer more insight into traditional metrics for government accountability — were not part of this first release.

“We are delighted to work with a local, innovative Silicon Valley start-up,” said Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s chief information officer, in a prepared statement. (Junar’s U.S. offices are in Palo Alto.) “Rather than just publishing lists of datasets, the cloud-based Junar platform has enhancement and visualization capabilities that make the data useful even before it is downloaded or consumed by a software application.”

Notably, the city chose to use Junar, a Chilean software company that raised $1.2 million dollars in funding in May 2012. Junar provides data access in the cloud through the software-as-a-service model. There’s now a more competitive marketplace for open data platforms than has existed in years past, with a new venture-backed startup joining the space.

“The City of Palo Alto joins a group of forward-thinking organizations that are using Open Data as a foundation for more efficient delivery of services, information, and enabling innovation,” said Diego May, CEO and co-founder of Junar, in a prepared statement. “By opening data with the Junar Platform, the City of Palo Alto is exposing and sharing valuable data assets and is also empowering citizens to use and create new applications and services.”

The success or failure of Palo Alto’s push to become a more digital city might be more fairly judged in a year, when measuring downstream consumption of its open data in applications and services by citizens — or by government in increasing productivity — will be possible.

In the meantime, Reichental (who may be familiar to Radar readers as O’Reilly Media’s former CIO) provided more perspective via email on what he’s up to in Palo Alto.

What does it mean for a “city to be a platform?”

Reichental: We think of this as both a broad metaphor and a practicality. Not only do our citizens want to be plugged in to our government operations — open data being one way to achieve this among others — but we want our community and other interested parties to build capability on top of our existing data and services. Recognizing the increasing limitations of local government means you have to find creative ways to extend it and engage with those that have the skills and resources to build a rich and seamless public-private partnership.

Why launch an open data initiative now? What success stories convinced you to make the investment?

Reichental: It’s a response to our community’s desire to easily access their data and our want as a City to unleash the data for better community decision-making and solution development.

We also believe that over time an open data portal will become a standard government offering. Palo Alto wants to be ahead of the curve and create a positive model for other communities.

Seldom does a week pass when a software engineer in our community doesn’t ask me for access to a large dataset to build an app. Earlier this year, the City participated in a hackathon at Stanford University that produced a prototype web application in less than 24 hours. We provided the data. They provided the skills. The results were so impressive, we were convinced then that we should scale this model.

How much work did it take to make your data more open? Is it machine-readable? What format? What cost was involved?

Reichental: We’re experimenting with running our IT department like a start-up, so we’re moving fast. We went from vendor selection to live in just a few weeks. The data in our platform can be exported as a CSV or to a Google Spreadsheet. In addition, we provide an API for direct access to the data. The bulk of the cost was internal staff time. The actual software, which is cloud-based, was under $5000* for the first year.

*Update: Junar senior marketing manager John C. Tran emailed to qualify that estimate, noting that the software company partnered with Palo Alto to offer a significantly discounted rate to the city that houses its U.S. headquarters.

“Our annual pricing plans range from $290 and $560 per month, to $830 per month,” wrote Tran. “We are open to other partnership opportunities and will review them on a case-by-case basis. In the case of the City of Palo Alto, we provided a customized plan at the minimum rate.”

What are the best examples of open data initiatives delivering sustainable services to citizens?

Reichental: Too many to mention. I really like what they’re doing in San Francisco (http://apps.sfgov.org/showcase/) but there are amazing things happening on data.gov and in New York City. Lots of other cities in the US doing neat things. The UK has done some high-quality budget accountability work.

Are you consuming your own open data?

Reichental: You bet we are.

Why does having an API matter?

Reichental: We believe the main advantage of having an API is for app development. Of course, there will be other use cases that we can’t even think of right now.

Why did you choose Junar instead of Socrata, CKAN or the OGPL from the U.S. federal government?

Reichental: We did review most of the products in the marketplace including some open source solutions. Each had merits. We ultimately decided on Junar for a 1-year commitment, as it seemed to strike the right balance of features, cost, and vision alignment.

Palo Alto has a couple developers in it. How are you engaging them to work with your data?

Reichental: That’s quite the understatement! The buzz already in the developer community is palpable. We’ve been swamped with requests and ideas already. We think one of the first places we’ll see good usage is in the myriad of hackathons/code jams held in the area.

What are the conditions for using your data or making apps?

Reichental: Our terms and conditions are straightforward. The data can be freely used by anyone for almost any purpose, but the condition of use is that the City has no liability or relationship with the use of the data or any derivative.

You told Mashable that you’re trying to acting like a “lean startup.” What does that mean, in practice?

Reichental: This initiative is a good example. Rather than spend time making the go-live product perfect, we went for speed-to-market with the minimally viable solution to get community feedback. We’ll use that feedback to quickly improve on the solution.

With the recent go-live of our redesigned public website, we launched it initially as a beta site; warts and all. We received lots of valuable feedback, made many of the suggested changes, and then cutover from the beta to production. We ended up with a better product.

Our intent is to get more useful capability out to our community and City staff in shorter time. We want to function as close as we can with the community that we serve. And that’s a lot of amazing start-ups.

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