Alameda County Saves More Than $565,000 with Open Data
Spanning the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay area in California, Alameda County boasts a population of more than 1.5 million residents, which puts the County on par with Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and just under Houston, Texas. The size of Alameda County isn’t what makes it remarkable, however. What distinguishes Alameda County is its success in engaging with its citizens in a way that makes this large county feel more like a small town. Few communities are as involved with their local government as the residents of Alameda County. So, what is the County’s secret to community collaboration?
It All Begins with Open Data
In 2011, County Administrator Susan Muranishi and the Board of Supervisors began to explore the idea of open data. “ Given our commitment to an open and transparent government, there was no question that the County should develop an open data initiative Muranishi says. The White House was spearheading “open data” at the federal level and we wanted to get involved at the local level. We looked to our Chief Information Officer, Tim Dupuis, to establish and lead an ‘Open Data’ committee that focused on data sharing among all County departments.”
To begin its research, the committee reviewed the open data portals of other governments and cities. “We saw what Chicago and New York were doing, and realized that the best open data sites have a common theme-- they are all powered by Socrata,” says Dupuis. Muranishi says, “As the doors opened up, we realized we had a tremendous goldmine in the form of information we could make available to the public in a user-friendly format. That’s when we officially launched our countywide open data initiative and turned our open data portal project over to Tim to figure out how to get the best value out of that data.” Implementation of the portal moved quickly, with the site ready to deploy within four months. The site was live by December of 2012. Muranishi stresses the importance of executive buy-in to make this program a success. “ Open and shared data wasn’t perceived as a threat because we understood that the data is already available; we just wanted to make it easier and more accessible to our constituents and our communities,” she says.
The Benefits of the Portal
Once the portal and open data project was handed off to Dupuis, he began to work quickly. He worked with department heads to meet the County’s priority for open data. Dupuis realized that if every stakeholder understood the potential of open data, the County would be more successful at using the portal to improve County services. But, how would they do that?
“Community,” says Dupuis. “We wanted to make the data available to the community to examine in a way that is interesting to them. The selection of our portal was important to us, as well as the tools the portal provides". To date, Alameda County has more than 100 datasets on the portal. Dupuis is committed to keeping them refreshed and they are being actively used, he says. “Some of the data receiving the most activity is our crime stats, restaurant inspection data, and even our bedbug dataset! The portal allows users to filter down to find more information on what is most interesting to them,” says Dupuis.
Still, Muranishi and Dupuis knew they could help the community get more from the portal.
Muranishi went to Dupuis with her next idea – it was time to organize a County-sponsored hackathon.
Apps Challenges and Rethink AC
“It was clear to Muranishi that a hackathon could meet the County’s open data initiative and community engagement priorities. This gave us the opportunity to bring our community together around data,” says Muranishi. The County has held three successful hackathons (Apps Challenges) that have engaged the full community, from seniors to youth. The Apps Challenges allow the County to promote its open data. But more than that, the hackathons provide a venue to engage the youth in our diverse communities and show them what their government does, and how they can apply their own technology skills to benefit the entire community. In fact, a couple of high school student participants enjoyed the County’s first-ever hackathon so much that they became summer interns in the County’s Information Technology department. The shuttle app they created during their summer internship, saved the County $65,000 that would have been paid to a developer to create this app.
Once Muranishi and Dupuis saw the power and success of the Apps Challenges, they knew they could leverage that formula within the walls of the County. “It just made sense to do the same thing internally,” says Muranishi. “We have more than 9,000 employees -- what better way to engage employees across departments and encourage them to work together to address shared challenges in our departments. For our first Rethink AC, we focused on collaboration by convening people from many different County departments to work together. Our employees are just as sharp and in many cases as collaborative as the broader communities we serve.”
One idea that emerged during Rethink AC was the idea for automated invoicing. The County recognized the potential of this idea, worked to develop it, and implemented it on April 1, 2014. The app has resulted in a new system that reduces the time required for verification from 40 hours to eight hours and has reduced scanning and storage costs by more than $500,000 annually.
Lightning Fast Innovation
People often assume it takes years to see this amount of success from an open data program. Alameda County proves that innovation, commitment, and collaboration drive success, not years. The County launched its open data portal in December of 2012, just under two years ago. In that short amount of time, the hard work of Muranishi, Dupuis, and the full team has driven the entire County forward, setting it apart as a leading innovator and thought-leader within the United States. The County’s success is on par with New York City and Chicago and has earned recognition, accolades, and numerous awards.
To anyone newer to the open data movement, or just beginning to lay the groundwork of an open data initiative, Alameda County serves as the gold standard of how to be phenomenally effective in a very short amount of time. In the spirit of collaboration, Muranishi and Dupuis share their advice to those who are taking their first steps into open data. “It’s a matter of being committed and open to innovation and change” says Muranishi. “Alameda County is fortunate because we have executive buy-in. Our leaders have embraced open data and encourage us to push the envelope in regards to government transparency. It’s a priority for us to engage with all of our stakeholders including our constituents, clients, and the broader communities we serve. The open data initiative is a win-win for us – the community has access to our data and we, in turn, have engaged and encouraged them to use that data to help the County improve services and be more efficient and effective,” she says. Dupuis agrees. “Having that strong leadership support opens up the opportunities for our team to be creative. We know we have to do this because our leaders are asking us to do this. We have the opportunity to be creative, learn new things and be a catalyst for new ideas.”