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Information technology and open data are going to continue to be important issues down the line. So what will the mayoral candidates do to embrace that?
Technology has an impact on every facet of the city — from the police department to public parks to infrastructure.
That’s why a number of local technologists and I have been working to help move our city forward in developing IT infrastructure. We worked with Councilman Mark Kersey to draft an open data policy, and we recently hosted IT for Politicos, a seminar to help those involved in government learn more about tech.
We have been making great strides, but I want to be sure that the next mayor continues this progress. So I asked candidates David Alvarez and Kevin Faulconer a series of questions about technology in government. They had some interesting things to say.
(Note: Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.)
Open source software (OSS) often offers higher quality and more secure technology at a fraction of the cost of proprietary software. But the city of San Diego makes almost no use of it. What would you do to change that?
David Alvarez: We’re undergoing a sea change in the world of technology. Open source software is coming of age, as evidenced, for example, by the fact that the federal government has just shifted its open data portal, www.data.gov, from proprietary software to open source.
I would expect this trend to snowball, since so many extensions are available, and developers have experience coding for OSS. The other benefit to the city is avoiding being locked into proprietary technologies, and making it easier to share data between programs and with the public.
There’s a saying that people love progress, but they hate change. So, embracing open source software as a means to accomplish our open data objectives will take a culture shift that won’t happen overnight. My administration will focus on finding high-quality, secure, cost-effective solutions — implementing them where they make most sense.
For instance, there are voting systems, audio systems, video systems and document publishing systems that are all open source or built from open source components. I’d be particularly interested in an OSS public records system to capture documents, votes, presentations, audio and video.
Ultimately, open data is about more than just making information readily accessible to the public. It can revolutionize city services, generating savings and creating efficiencies. Agency data has historically been siloed and the different departments (let alone the public) haven’t been able to share. Open data allows us to mine data, look for patterns and create operating efficiencies beyond expectations. If we can show the public how open data benefits everyday efforts, the support for moving further will be there.
Kevin Faulconer: I am interested in any solution that provides higher-quality service at a lower cost. The implementation of open source software has the exciting potential to promote collaboration and interactive exchange to build a better technology future for San Diego. I would be interested in partnering with local technology experts to work on a plan to implement a common sense approach to transition to open source software when appropriate.
Some of the best recent successes in government technology have been in situations where IT was recognized as a core service, and addressed using small, agile teams of government employees — the U.K.’s Government Digital Service, for example. Despite this, the city of San Diego has moved toward increased contracting for government services. What steps, if any, would you take to reverse this?
Alvarez: Where possible, I will use nimble in-house development teams — which have a better perspective on local issues than large corporations, and can become a repository of knowledge about the city’s systems — and local contractors to create jobs in San Diego.
Faulconer: My staff and I will be reviewing all city functions once elected, particularly when it comes to IT services and operations. I will be looking at the department and outside contractors to determine their effectiveness.
San Diego has a vibrant technology community, including a large number of startups. But instead of utilizing this community, the city has outsourced most of its technology to large multinationals. What would you to do to reverse this?
Alvarez: Community engagement isn’t a buzzword for me. It is at the heart of how I govern. Engagement doesn’t stop at neighborhoods and geographical communities, but communities of interest as well. I’ve learned that listening to community members is a great learning tool, and I embrace that approach.
Meet-ups, hack-a-thons and other events (potentially incorporating our vibrant craft beer scene) can encourage local developers to take advantage of open data sets in innovative ways. Collaborations with local universities could provide additional expertise and engage students.
One data set people might not know about that was impressive to me is the San Diego Tree Map project, which is a crowd-sourcing effort started in 2010, designed to fill the gap left by fewer urban forestry programs. The project is based on OSS, and allows the public to provide the information needed to better understand the role our urban forest plays in our ecosystem. Anyone can contribute to the project and so many of us can benefit — quantifying the pollution-removal capacity of certain areas, encouraging citizen participation and inventorying our urban canopy in a cost-effective way.
Faulconer: I believe there is a greater role for small businesses to work with the city of San Diego, including our dynamic and local technology startups. I’ve been a strong proponent of growing San Diego’s tech economy, and will look for opportunities for the city of San Diego to play a larger role in that effort.
As we continue the overhaul of the city’s IT operations, we may find there are IT functions the city is not performing but should, and that these functions are best served by smaller companies — creating the perfect opportunity to open a dialogue with local tech startups about ways to put them to work to improve our city. I want to make sure local startups have a seat at the table so the city can leverage their expertise, and possibly their services, to create a more effective, responsive and modern City Hall.
One of the most common problems with IT is usability. Tools are often functional, but too difficult to use. Government technology, for a variety of reasons, suffers from even more significant usability challenges. How would you address this?
Alvarez: Usability has been a problem. For open data to be a success, users need to be able to find information, read it and work with it. It’s no good for agencies to take data that’s machine-readable and computable in their files and post it in a format where it isn’t.
We’re a bit late to the table in initiating our open data policy, but one of the advantages is that the federal government and other cities that have been early adopters have valuable experience we can draw upon.
My administration will make a top-down commitment to releasing data for all to use. We’ve already started the process with an in-depth look from the independent budget analyst’s office, and great work from the open data advisory group.
Faulconer: Technology can only increase public access to government services if it is accessible to all users. There are many challenges to improving the usability of city online services, and my top priority for increasing technology accessibility at the city is to create a new website that will be able to communicate with mobile devices.
Average San Diegans are becoming more reliant on communicating almost exclusively with mobile devices, but the city does not have any mobile applications. We have to be dedicated to creating platforms that are flexible and user friendly to enhance public access.
Note: The candidates also provided me with answers to questions about open data. For the sake of brevity, and as these did not substantially vary from the answers they previously provided to KPBS, I have not included them here, but would encourage you to read those as well.
Benjamin A. Katz is a technology entrepreneur. He currently runs JSX, Inc. and Givalike.org. Katz’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.