San Francisco makes open data city policy

SF Mayor Ed Lee introduced open data legislation on October 15 that would create a chief data officer and promote the use of open data in city government. (Photo: City of San Francisco)

SF Mayor Ed Lee introduced open data legislation on October 15 that would create a chief data officer and promote the use of open data in city government. (Photo: City of San Francisco)

Today, open data and its power to transform a city and a nation by engaging tech savvy citizens will be on display at San Francisco City Hall. And just as importantly, companies that have been successful because of forward thinking open data policies will testify to our elected leaders about its importance. As a founder of one of these sustainable companies, Appallicious, I am proud to be speaking on behalf of the open data movement.

After hearing testimony from myself and others in the open data industry, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will review and vote on new legislation that will strengthen the city’s open data initiatives and allow San Francisco to appoint a Chief Data Officer (CDO) to manage the City’s open data efforts.

More than three years ago the City of San Francisco launched DataSF.org, the city’s one-stop shop for government data. San Francisco was the first city to follow the federal government’s open government effort, Data.gov when it launched DataSF.org. Since then, more than 70 apps have been developed for city residents by civic innovators and companies– countless other cities and towns have been inspired to follow San Francisco’s lead and have enacted similar policies, providing residents with greater accessibility to government data.

San Francisco’s open data efforts have helped spur the creation of apps for citizens that makes it easier for residents to receive government services, actively participate in city policy and have saved the city a substantial amount of money. Behind these open data apps are new, civically minded companies, and a new industry that is starting to emerge in the land of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  Companies like Appallicious100PlusRoutesy, and Zonability, that would not have been possible just a couple years ago are popping up in cities all over the country supported by amazing organizations like Code For America.

Back in October 2012, I was proud to join San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Supervisor David Chiu and San Francisco Rec & Park GM Phil Ginsburg as they introduced the revised open data legislation. These Gov 2.0 leaders used the event to highlight companies like Appallicious that are using open data to create apps and re-imagine our city. They launched the San Francisco Rec & Park app that Appallicious created using over 1,000 datasets for parks, playgrounds, and dog parks, along with transportation datasets so residents can get directions to all of the City’s attractions. All of these datasets are available on DataSF.org.

The SF Rec & Park app makes it easy for anybody to find city parks, playgrounds, museums, picnic tables, gardens, restrooms, news and events and more in the palm of your hand. Information is displayed with descriptions and pictures on a GPS enabled mobile map.

The SF Rec & Park app, which was recently named by Mashable as one of 7 open data apps every city should have, also will soon make it easier for residents to make reservations for a soccer field or picnic table, or apply for a permit when they need to host an event in a public park. All of this will be available through a mobile device or on the web, saving taxpayers and government workers time and money. No longer will you have to wait on hold or send multiple emails to confirm a picnic table reservation for a birthday party.

Open data apps like this are only the beginning of something much bigger that is being made possible by open data policies and government leaders that get its importance.

On his first day as President, Obama signed the memorandum on Transparency and Open Government to spur innovation at the Federal level for private sector development. This move inspired progressive cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia to create their own open data legislation at the local level.  This has led to an emergent new industry, unparalleled innovation, job creation, revenue, and collaboration between government and the private sector not seen since President Reagan’s decision to open up the Global Positioning System in the 1980s.

Organizations like Code for America and Citizenville, as well as private companies like Appallicious and the SF Rec & Park app are living, breathing examples of the new industry first created by President Reagan in the 1980s and rejuvenated by President Obama.

Stay tuned, a whole new industry is starting to take form powered by open data on a local level, creating jobs, revenue, and never before seen citizen and government.

If your city is new to the open data movement, please ask your elected leaders to take the Citizenville Challenge and bring open data policies and innovation to your community. And take a second to support the open data movement by applauding Appallicious’ submission to the Knight Foundation News Challenge and others that are transforming the way government and citizens engage and communicate.

Corrections: “Open Government Act” was changed to “memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.” Reference to “Open GPS” was changed to “Global Positioning System.”

Zonability founder shares thoughts on apps, open data, advice to civic developers


Zonability is a zoning information Web application for ‘property owners, renters, sellers, buyers, remodelers, investors, and neighborhood watchdog groups.’ It was an Apps for Californians winner and is now competing in the NYC BigApps 2.0 contest. Founder Leigh Budlong discusses her work, challenges with open data, thoughts on Gov 2.0 and shares lessons-learned advice to other civic developers.

How did you get the idea for Zonability?

Zonability is an idea that I carried in the back of my head for years, but it took the 2008 financial crisis to make it come to life. As a former commercial real estate appraiser, I was always tracking down zoning information. While I knew I couldn’t establish an opinion of value without it, I dreaded doing it because it was time consuming. It meant waiting for city planners to return a call or picking through online PDFs that are hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pages long. The bottom line, it was one of those tasks that always left me with the thought of “there has to be a better way.”

The collapse of the real estate market and subsequent financial meltdown put almost all of my customers out of business. By the end of 2009, I knew I had to re-invent my 6-year old company if I wanted to keep it going.

What have been your challenges developing Zonability?

We are working on multiple fronts so there are several major challenges that range from access to information, developing a sound business model and resource allocation. Zonability is a bootstrapped project. We know first hand what it takes to be a “skinny startup” and have reached out to others in this sector to ask how they are doing it – it is a great community of software developers!

Regarding the technology piece, designing and building the database has been most perplexing given the disparity of data sets and the sheer volume of data found in a typical zoning ordinance.

Incorporating GIS (geographical information system) data became a big part of our product once we learned how to successfully embed the zoning ordinance data. The fusion of two produced our interactive map – I was hooked! The drawback has been the time required to go to individual municipalities to inquire about a GIS shapefiles (this is the format for GIS). Some places have the information online, others require a signed statement outlining the purpose of asking for the data while others simply say “no” because we are not a non-profit. Convincing cities to provide these files has been an ongoing challenge.

What are your thoughts on Gov 2.0?

In my view, we are at the beginning stages of an evolving trend and this is due to several reasons: the popularity of smart phones, increased adoption of self service informational platforms, and stripped government budgets. We are also at the forefront of people collectively solving problems. That in itself may lead to other interesting turns of events. Adoption rates will be fast once the benefits become clear and the process for creating an open data platform get easier.

I’m currently reading The Change Function by Pip Coburn who talks extensively about why some technology is adopted while others are not. It comes down to ease of use. I see the next chapter for Gov 2.0 focusing on how to consume this now open data with a cleaned up and conforming structure such as APIs.

Once that milestone is reached, I anticipate the real adoption to start. One way to track the success of Gov 2.0 will be to monitor the growth of civic software jobs. “Government as a platform” has tremendous potential to be a successful example of public/private partnership. Using Zonability as an example, we started with an idea, grew it to something tangible and are now starting to pay people with different backgrounds and talents in the hope of building a business. That is where I think Gov 2.0 is going … to new job creation and entrepreneurship.

What advice do you have for aspiring civic software developers?

Well, it is a bit like construction – it takes twice as long and costs twice as much. Really though, it is good to recognize early that despite having great plans, things may take longer and not go the way you thought they would. This seems to be especially true for civic software given the “new-ness” of the concept.

These are my tips:

  1. Don’t get down or give up when you hear “no.”
  2. Don’t think you are the only one hearing “no” so reach out to other developers.
  3. Explain clearly what data you need (and why) and be prepared to make your request in writing.
  4. Be an ambassador for Gov 2.0 and help explain it to people since it is so new. It is important to recognize the distinction between data and information. In fact, that is a critical point. The government has data – tons of it – but it is and will remain worthless without ‘doing something’ with it to make it useful.
  5. Encourage other civic software developers – this is a brand new field and there is plenty of room for all of those interested to enter. There is no successful business model to point to (at least not quite yet).
  6. Timing is everything. Be prepared, think ahead and have fun because this is an undefined space where you can make a difference and be apart of a fast-changing cottage industry.

From a personal perspective, Zonability is stretching my boundaries on so many levels. It is like being in a lab where you learn technology, government protocol and product development while coping with the risk of failure. It requires a leap of faith to devote all of your time and personal savings to a new venture, but it is incredibly rewarding – even before seeing a single dollar of the revenue we aspire to create in the future.

To learn more, contact Leigh or follow Zonability on Twitter.

Zonability video overview: