CIO Jon Walton on San Mateo Open Data

By Bridget Quigg

Earlier this month, San Mateo County announced the launch of its open data portal to “throw open the doors to a treasure trove of public information.”

We caught up the County’s Chief Information Officer Jon Walton to discuss the program. A true open data enthusiast, Walton has a vision for how greater data access can inspire citizen engagement and streamline internal collaboration in San Mateo.

The following is a transcript of our interview with Walton.Jon_Walton_San_Mateo

Why is San Mateo County pursuing an open data program?

It’s similar to the challenge that most governments and most CIOs have. There is a lot of governmental data available, typically, but sometimes it gets trapped in departmental silos or it is hard to locate if you are a member of the public, or even if you’re an employee internal to the organization.

Data is the key element to answering a lot of questions. We have a lot of good applications at our fingertips but, minus the data, we are limited in our ability to do the analysis to answer the questions about how we have done things in the past performance-wise, or the impact of the different programs.

The value of the open data portal is two-fold. One, it’s easier for the public to find the disparate pieces of data that were scattered around the county. They have one lens to interact with that data. And, they have pre-built tools and functionality where they can make the data more useful.

Second, internally, there is an opportunity to create that collaborative environment where the data experts from the various departments can come together and start meeting, talking, and problem solving. They can go beyond, “How do we upload our data?” and take it to the next level of being surprised by similar data other people have and how to problem solve across departments.

What is your vision for the use of open data in San Mateo County?

We’d like to do the traditional things that other governments have done. Use it as a gathering place to brainstorm with the community. That is typically what we all do when we put up open data portals.

For us internally, there is also a benefit. We have a strong culture of wanting to understand the data behind our performance metrics and how what we do day to day in government contributes to the public benefit. What are our outcomes?

I’m really excited in San Mateo to not just do that public facing work of open data hackathons and events like that but to really use the data internally. We’ll be better able to create links between how people spend their time everyday, the tasks they perform, and how those directly contribute to positive outcomes for government.

We talk a lot about performance management and everybody doing their part. I think this is one area where the system can connect all of those dots together.

Which datasets are most popular so far?

The most popular datasets so far are anything that has to do with kids: kids’ meals, kids’ literacy, kids’ reading levels, or kids’ educational opportunities.

I think it’s great that we have such a focus in San Mateo around the educational piece. A lot of times, I see the data take off and it’s all about the crime, such as where is the crime, what types of crime, and how do we suppress it. That’s a reality, and it is important.

But, in San Mateo in particular, our team collects a lot of data and is very engaged in how to improve education, literacy, preschool opportunities, and reading levels for children. Those are datasets right now that are popular, and we get more and more requests for datasets like that. It would be great to solve the problems in the community in that area and make the connections to what they affect downstream.

What would be your advice to a citizen of San Mateo County who is trying out the open data portal for the first time?

The reason I like working in local government is because, what is around you is what is important to you. We’re all citizens of a town, city, or county. But, it’s usually your neighborhood that you care the most about; your neighbors and the three square blocks around you. I’m the same way.

I would say that the cool part of the system is the graphical nature of it. Dive in there, dive into your immediate neighborhood and see which data sets relate directly to what’s around you. Start playing with it. You already know your neighborhood. You already know what’s around you in your immediate vicinity but see what else the data can tell you about the things in the four square blocks around your house, or two square-miles.

That’s really when it goes from the esoteric, ivory-tower approach to data to “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that about my neighborhood.” That’s the fun part and that’s what I would encourage everyone to do.

Go play with the data. You can’t hurt it. You can only make it better. Look at what’s around you and give us feedback. It’s all part of that evolution of government. The more government opens up and becomes collaborative with the community the better it’s going to make government and the community.

Visit the San Mateo County open data portal

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