Open Data Takes a Community

By Andy Krackov

Okay, I admit it: Even as an open data champion, I find that it’s often mundane to view data on a portal. Simple lists of datasets — and even the maps and charts you can create — don’t really show the intrinsic value of data that’s been freed to benefit communities.

To really capture the meaning and potential of such data, you need people to bring data to life — in the form of local collaborations, news stories, and apps that provide the audiences you’re trying to reach with easy access to information and services. It takes people, not portals, to leverage data to improve the usage and delivery of services; raise broad awareness of issues; and inform local and statewide policymaking. For example, leveraging health data from California’s health department’s open data portal to create stories about measles-immunization rates for kindergarteners in the Golden State. Media attention harnessing this information brought this story to life. Data just sitting on a portal can’t do that.

And these people need to connect with each other. An advocacy organization in Fresno may want to learn from similar work being done in San Diego. A nurse at a health clinic in downtown L.A. may want to partner with a researcher at USC who’s got expertise with health data. An epidemiologist with the California Department of Public Health may want to team up with staff at local health departments.

As open data efforts statewide expand and mature, the need has become clear for data stakeholders to collaborate in these and other ways. To help address this, the California Health & Human Services Agency (CHHS) has initiated a project — tentatively dubbed the Data Commons — to help Californians make effective use of publicly available data.

This project, which is funded by the California HealthCare Foundation, had its roots in outreach work CHHS conducted as part of the California Health Data Project that I was involved with soon after the agency’s portal launched. The project has helped bring together innovative leaders from CHHS, local governments, and, most importantly, the community — healthcare providers, civic hackers, and advocacy groups — to ensure this valuable information is finding its way into the hands of people and organizations who can put it to good use.

During an event last year sponsored by the California Health Data Project, we had an “A-ha!” moment. At a Code for San Jose event, a volunteer technologist who was eager to improve his community with his technical chops commented that, while it’s great to see all these data being released, how does he — that is, someone who has no experience in health — know what to build from data that’s been made available? It’s true that he can’t rightly expect to have the subject matter expertise to know what to create, but what if he easily could pair up with a doctor who’s on the front lines of providing care, each contributing their own expertise to build data tools that can make a difference in San Jose. That’s an organizing concept around the Data Commons.

The project, still in its formative stages, is a team effort involving CHHS, Purchia Communications, and CivicMakers. We’re eager to gather input as this project evolves, so stay tuned for specific ways you can contribute. In the meantime, fill out this form to express your interest and join the project email list.

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