Diving into State’s Open Data Sets — with Help

I’m a champion of open data, but I’ll be the first to admit that viewing data on a portal sometimes can be unsatisfying. Scanning simple lists of data sets — and even the maps and charts you can create out of them — doesn’t really show how the liberation of government information can benefit communities.

To fully realize the data’s meaning and potential, it’s essential to bring the information to life with the help of local collaborations, news coverage, and smartphone apps that unlock information and services. When it comes to leveraging data mined from state portals in ways that improve the use and delivery of services, raise broad awareness of issues, and inform local and statewide policymaking, it takes people to make that happen. It wasn’t enough to use health data from California’s open-data portal to create stories about measles-immunization rates for kindergarteners in the Golden State. This story came to life only when journalists deployed this information to maximum effect, as the New York Times did with this mapping project. Data just sitting in a public data library can’t do that.

As open-data efforts statewide expand and mature, the need has become clear for data stakeholders to collaborate with others. An advocacy organization trying to improve neighborhoods in Fresno may want to study similar work being done in San Diego. A nurse at a health clinic in downtown Los Angeles may want to partner with a University of Southern California researcher who’s got health data expertise. An epidemiologist with the California Department of Public Health may want to team up with staff at local health departments.

To help address this, the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS) has initiated a project,  tentatively dubbed the Data Commons,  to help Californians make effective use of a trove of publicly available data. With help from the tech and the health policy communities, it can have a great impact.

The project, which is funded by the California Health Care Foundation, began with CHHS outreach for the California Health Data Project, which I was involved in soon after the agency’s portal launched. The goal is to put this valuable information into the hands of organizations and people who can put it to good use. The project has helped bring together innovative leaders from CHHS, local governments, and most importantly, the community  — health care providers, civic hackers, and advocacy groups.

At an event last year sponsored by the California Health Data Project, we gained an important insight from a Code for San Jose volunteer technologist eager to use his skills to improve his community. He asked how someone like himself, with no experience in health care, would know what to build from these data sets? His question made us realize that we can’t expect people without subject matter expertise to know what to create.

But what if he easily could collaborate with a doctor on the front lines of providing care — each one contributing expertise to build data tools to improve life in San Jose? That’s the organizing concept around the Data Commons.

Getting from concept to reality involves community input. There are numerous directions the Data Commons could take, and multiple needs it could address. The project team, which includes CHHS, Purchia Communications, and CivicMakers, has been interviewing a range of users statewide, including journalists, civic-minded hackers, epidemiologists at county health agencies, and nonprofit leaders. As the project evolves, their insights will help us determine the direction of the Data Commons.

We’re eager to gather more input, so please fill out this form to join the project email list and stay tuned for ways you can contribute.

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