The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Maksim Pecherskiy, San Diego’s first Chief Data Officer. Pecherskiy discussed the benefits of open government data and the development of an Open Data Portal for San Diego.
Josh New: Congratulations on your appointment as San Diego’s first Chief Data Officer. Could you explain what a Chief Data Officer’s role is in government?
Maksim Pecherskiy: The City of San Diego produces, tracks and stores enormous amounts of data. Some of that data we systematically share inter and intra departmentally, while other data is used to report to state and federal agencies. Mayor Faulconer, a strong supporter of this new role and the open data policy I am tasked with implementing, relies on data in his decision making. However, some of this data goes unused even though it could be extremely valuable to San Diego residents as well as internal government employees. The role of a Chief Data Officer is to understand what data the city has and where it’s stored, package it to maximize access by parties that are not its primary users so they can exponentially increase it’s value, and empower those parties to do so.
I’m also very excited to be a part of the new Performance & Analytics Department Mayor Faulconer created at the city. Sometimes open data is a separate function, whereas I get to be a part of team focused on empowering employees through initiatives that reward good ideas for operational improvements, facilitating data-driven decisions, developing performance measures to increase accountability, and increasing transparency for the public. There’s a great deal of leveraging that can occur with these various citywide initiatives and I’m excited how they all relate and can contribute to each other.
New: As the first person to have your position, what are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in getting city government to think with data?
Pecherskiy: One of the reasons that Mayor Faulconer has been such a big supporter of this initiative is that there are some really smart folks that work for the city who have a multitude of data analysis skills and have an unfathomable amount of knowledge about their departments and our various lines of business. We have an over $3 billion budget, over 10,000 employees, and over 1.3 million residents, making us a very complex organization with no real comparable private business that I know of. Since the city is such a large and multi-faceted enterprise, a lot of the data is stored in different systems that don’t always talk to each other, and no one person is aware of all the potential data stores. This creates barriers to people being able to grab the data they need when they need it, leaving them to rely on personal relationships and know-how rather than standardized replicable processes.
New: San Diego recently adopted an open data policy to publish enormous amounts of government data online beginning in July 2016. What kind of work is involved in ensuring the public can access and use this data?
Pecherskiy: Like I mentioned previously, there is no central data inventory for the city and creating the beginnings of one will be my first task. I will be working with coordinators across city departments to determine the different sources and stores of data they use, and deriving data sets. The next step is to prioritize them based on many different factors—desire from the public, the Mayor’s office, the City Council, and of course the technical complexity of release—not necessarily in that order, but you get the idea.
New: Can you talk a bit about the benefits of opening government data to the public?
Pecherskiy: The most common answer to this question is “people can take this data and build businesses on top of it”—a case that is very often true. However, there are many less known advantages:
- Improved decision making: The mayor, the council members and many employees rely on data-driven outcomes and projections to make better decisions for the city. By providing them with actionable data about how they’re doing and how they can best influence change, we are able to make San Diego a better city to live in.
- Decrease in Public Records Act requests as well as a streamlined process for responding to them: Since open data is well, open, people can find the data they need without having to ask for it. On the other side of the table, government employees don’t have to respond twice to the same request from two different entities.
- The Open Source effect: Back in the 70s, if you were writing code, you were doing it alone, maybe with one or two lab partners. Fast forward to the 1990s, and now you’re able to collaborate on projects with thousands of programmers around the world. Open source and the Internet were able to accelerate the development of software and create exponential growth. I believe the concept of Open Data has the same potential. All of a sudden, it’s not just 10 people looking at one dataset, asking questions and getting answers, it’s thousands—all with a different context and a different viewpoint. We’ve already seen this in many cities in many different ways and the creative and tech community here in San Diego is large and has enormous potential.
- Internal Sharing: Many times, a city employee who could use a set of data in her project either has no idea it exists or doesn’t know where to find it. If she does get her hands on it, there’s a good likelihood that it needs a lot of cleaning. These are problems that would inevitably be solved by opening data up to the public. So it’s not just Open Data for the residents, it’s Open Data for employees as well.
- Community engagement and customer service: People that care about their city or are customers of our services often want to know more about what we do and how we are doing it. How many permits did we issue this year? Where? How is that infrastructure project coming along? Why is there a cement truck one block over? It’s important for people to know these things in order to be a happy and active member of their community. I believe that Open Data is a step towards that outcome.
New: The Open Data Portal is a huge undertaking. Are you able to work on any other projects simultaneously? If not, what do you hope to see for the future for San Diego’s data?
Pecherskiy: The inventory is a big thing right now and is my main task. I’m also working to get familiar with the city’s technology architecture and business structure. Finally, I believe the San Diego community will inevitably be a huge part of this effort, and I’m looking for ways to engage them and would welcome ideas along those lines.
It’s important to understand that my job is far from over when the portal is launched—in fact it will just be beginning. The open data policy has a five year timeline for posting all the data sets for the city on the portal. In addition, the initial launch will contain only information that has been uploaded—automatic uploading of the data will be a big task. I’m looking forward to building tools that will take the data out of the city systems, clean it, format it, and upload it to the portal.
In addition, I’m participating in the website overhaul effort that the city is undertaking due to my experience as a web developer. It’s a very exciting project, and I’m hoping that the new site will be one of the consumers of the open data we’re able to release. It’s a really good example of the things that the city is doing in the digital space, and it’s a really exciting time to be working at the City of San Diego.