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San Francisco Passes First Open Data Law

San Francisco City Hall

One year ago, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order directing the city’s departments to make their data public. Yesterday, the city’s board of supervisors turned that order into law. As far as we could establish, this is the first time any city in the U.S. has implemented an open data law. But given that other jurisdictions often follow San Francisco’s lead in this space, it’s likely not the last.

The law is brief. It simply says city’s departments and agencies "shall make reasonable efforts" to publish any data under their control — provided that doing so does not violate other laws, particularly those related to privacy. The Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance unanimously.

Open data, Newsom believes, makes city government more transparent and increases accountability. But it also makes life better for residents because tools can be made on top of the city’s data that the city itself never would have made. As the ordinance says, it benefits the city via the "mobilization of San Francisco’s high-tech workforce… to create useful civic tools at no cost to the City."

In the year since Newsom opened the data treasure troves, 200 sets of data have been released, and at least 50 apps have been built using them. Among the apps: EcoFinder, which helps people find recycling locations for all sorts of odds and ends; SpotCrime, which plots crime incidents and sends alerts to residents; and, possibly the favorite of the city's transportation-beleaguered residents, Routesy, which lets people plan tips on public transportation and provides real-time information about when the next bus or train is coming.

San Francisco CIO Chris Vein said the city thinks open data could create opportunities for entrepreneurs. "It’s a platform for small business growth," he told Fast Company. "We’re giving developers the chance to do creative things." Only eight U.S. cities have some kind of open data repository, including Seattle and Chicago.

Vein said the cost to the city of implementing the law — of actually doing the work to make the data open — is "minimal." The harder part, he said, is opening the eyes of entrenched bureaucracies, like the ones that comprise city governments, to the value of letting the data loose. "Our experience in government is not to use the private sector or individuals as partners," Vein said. "The biggest cost is the intrinsic cost — getting [government workers] to understand the value of the data and why we’re trying to do this."

[Image: Flickr user Julie, Dave, and Family]

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