Explore Open Data — Transforming Open Data into Smart City Applications

“Explore Open Data” is a research project by the SixThirty Group, designed to promote open data standards and to help publishers and users accomplish more with open data. A major part of our research is this interview series featuring experts of open data. Through their visions, we intend to elucidate the roadmap for the future of open data.

Our interview this week features Joyce Edson, the Deputy Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the City of Los Angeles and the Assistant General Manager for the City’s Information Technology Agency. Joyce earned a Master’s degree in Social Welfare from UCLA and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from California State University — Los Angeles. After working in private social welfare upon graduation, Joyce realized that the real way to make social changes was from “within”, as in, by working in government.

Joyce joined the Los Angeles City in 1985 in a general Administrator position. In this role, she fell in love with using technology to achieve and to evaluate social changes. It has since played an important role in her career journey, as she worked to launch the City’s Open Data site, data.lacity.org, was the Interim Chief Data Officer, and now the Deputy Chief Information Officer.

Question: Could you please tell us more about your role as the City Deputy CIO?

Joyce: I oversee app work on an enterprise level. For example, the city has to pay its 48,000+ employees, so payroll is one of my systems. We have to pay our vendors because the city is a huge consumer as well as a business, so the City’s financial management system is also under my purview. There are also 38 departments, bureaus, and agencies that have mission-specific roles. The Bureau of Engineering’s role is to maintain, design, and build bridges and facilities. The Building and Safety Department inspects our buildings and keeps the safety code. It is my responsibility to support their missions in application and data provision.

Question: What was your experience as the Interim Chief Data Officer?

Joyce: I was worked to launch open data for the City of Los Angeles. We were probably the last large city to launch open data, but I think we did it well when we did launch. At that point, data was my profound interest, because I came from an application background, and applications are all about using, creating, and enhancing data.

My primary goal was to make sure that we launched the open data site. We gathered as much data as we could from the departments, made sure that we maintained HIPAA and privacy concerns to the data that we published, and we published as meaningful a dataset as possible. “Meaningful” meant that the data is accurate and would actually be useful to somebody.

We live in a time when velocity to market is a big deal. If you had to go to a city facility and go through paper files, it would take you much longer to respond to the market. It is the responsibility of the city to enable businesses, residents, and tourists to be able to function and maneuver within the City. A major part of that has to do with information, and information is data. The role of Chief Data Officer is about making sure that the data is available, accurate, and meaningful.

Question: What are the fastest growing areas for data-related applications that you’ve seen in the City of LA?

Joyce: Transportation is always a big one, especially living in Los Angeles. Any application that has a transportation flavor to it is always very popular. Public safety and public infrastructure are also very hot topics and of great interest to the public. Public infrastructure can include everything from the quality of streets to WiFi availability. There is a city link project to provide better and lower cost WiFi internet coverage for the residents, because internet accessibility is the basis of a smart city. If you don’t have internet, you’re at a disadvantage. Other growing areas of applications in the public infrastructure domain also includes green technologies, childcare, and public recreation.

Question: Talking about enabling businesses and smart cities, how have open data gotten us closer to that objective?

There is a direct correlation between the number of new businesses and the city’s degree of support to these businesses, and open data is a part of it.

Joyce: One dataset that is immensely popular is building permits and planning zones. It ties very closely to businesses. In fact, we recently launched a business portal, which enables people to understand our building zones and planning areas. If I want to open a nail salon, there are certain places where the building and planning codes allow you to have that type of business. It is very important that we provide building permit information in an open data format, so entrepreneurs and businesses can make informed decisions about locations. There is a direct correlation between the number of new businesses and the city’s degree of support to these businesses, and open data is a part of it.

Question: How has the public been engaged and what would you like to see more of?

Joyce: The city’s ability to engage its four million residents is always a challenge. We are trying to figure out different ways to make the engagement easier. The business portal was one way. We also have a system called BAVN, which is the Business Assistance Virtual Network. All of the city business opportunities, RFPs, commodities, and construction opportunities are posted on there. People can sign up for the types of information that they are interested in and get notification when we post an opportunity that is of their interest.

We are also looking into networking systems with other governments to expand our reach. If somebody has an interest or request for Santa Monica, and Los Angeles has information or a program related to that interest, or can fulfill that request, then the system will send an email to the person, which says, “We noticed that you went on to the City of Santa Monica and searched for this, did you know the City of LA has this?” We’re always looking to increase our participation in networks like this, so it will expand our reach to the public and make us more accessible.

Question: Many startups also build applications that benefit the public. What is the engagement like from the startup world? Does the city have any programs to support startups?

Our increasing effort in creating more APIs to our data is a way to support startups to create applications.

Joyce: The city has an innovation center, La Kretz, around clean technology, and there are a number of startups are housed there. We are open to startup technology, but we also have the responsibility to make sure that our investment is going to be stable and sustainable, which may sometimes be an issue with startups. Our increasing effort in creating more APIs to our data is another way to support startups to create applications.

Technology for the city is coming out of the 2008 recession, where everything went into the deep freeze from a financial ability to keep up with technology. For the immediate, we are concentrating on modernizing ourselves and increasing the digital IQ of the City. We need to establish a solid foundation, but we also look for areas to responsibly advance in technology, where we can.

Question: For anyone interested in using open data to make our city smarter, what recommendations do you have for them?

The City is like an aircraft carrier. We don’t turn on a dime, but it doesn’t mean we can’t turn.

Joyce: Be persistent and ask questions. People comment on the data that we publish on the open data site and ask for information. “You’ve got this really great data, but I really need this field, do you guys capture that?” We try to know what datasets and data fields that people might need, but the most direct way is to ask. The City is like an aircraft carrier. We don’t turn on a dime, but it doesn’t mean we can’t turn. We are definitely not the monolithic City Hall of the past. We are very willing and want to be open to work with people, businesses, startups, and other government agencies. As long as it is making things better, it fits our goal.