Town Square

Palo Alto project makes public a trove of data

Original post made on May 1, 2013

Depending on one's digital prowess and hunger for data, Palo Alto's newest transparency initiative is either a head-scratcher or a reason to rejoice. The city last week unveiled its latest "open data" initiative -- Open GIS.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 8:39 AM


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Posted by Henry
a resident of Downtown North
on May 1, 2013 at 9:25 am

Nice data base, but data alone doesn't result in transparency. Giving the public access to an overdose of data won't change who wields the power or how they make their decisions.

How can staff honestly claim transparency when our City Council wants to negotiate the disposition of Cubberley Community Center in private meetings? Significant policy decisions are made in Council Sub-committe meetings comprised of only three Council Members, that are poorly noticed and not attended by the public. Staff lacks a work plan that prioritizes and schedules their deliverables. The City lacks a Comprehensive Plan Update to guide land use decisions. The list goes on and on with the real issues that allow significant decisions to be made privately by a handful of power brokers.

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Posted by SuperD
a resident of Community Center
on May 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Really? How much will all of this cost? Last time I remember, we have a huge infrastructure expense looming in the not too distant future. Keeping roads and public property in good shape is more important than giving people access to this kind of info. Let's get a surplus in the city coffers before we start down this path...

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Posted by William
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm

This is really amazing to see. Kudos to Palo Alto for taking the initiative here. There is a ton of fascinating information available and making it accessible via an API is really smart.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm

There is a bit more going on here than one might glean from this Weekly article. The fact is that the whole City GIS is public domain, with a few exceptions that are related to national/local security. The right of individuals/corporate entities to request the already machine-readable GIS data was established a few years back by a lawsuit filed by the California First Amendment Coalition. A quick overview of that law suit, and how the County of Los Angeles has complied with the general sense of the Court can be seen in this LA Country web-page:

Web Link

Appeals Court Rejects Santa Clara County’s Basemap Data Sale
February 5, 2009

In a unanimous decision, the three-Justice panel of the California Court of Appeal affirmed the Santa Clara County Superior Court’s decision requiring Santa Clara County to comply with public requests for a copy of its GIS parcel basemap, under the conditions of California’s Public Records Act (PRA). The Court validated the California First Amendment Coalition’s (CFAC) demand for the data at no more than the cost of duplication, and without restrictions of use.
Over the years, the County of Santa Clara was notorious for either refusing access to its data, or charging so much that ordinary people were effectively denied access to this public property. The CFAC lawsuit put an end to those denials.

There is little evidence on the City’s web-site that it wants the people of Palo Alto to know about this lawsuit, and its ramifications—our rights to most, if not all, of the GIS that we have paid for. However, thanks to “google”, we can quickly chase down the details of that suit, and educate ourselves about what rights we have to City property than is “intellectual” in nature—rather than physical.

The City is not exactly at the forefront of making its GIS data available, and folks should understand that.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 1, 2013 at 5:36 pm

From a quick look at the data on the OpenGIS dataset, the City has not provided that much of its GIS, which they claim has “hundreds of layers and millions of features”. While it’s nice that the City has provided access to its very expensive “tree data base”, it’s not clear how this data remotely relates to “government transparency”.

Given the results of the CFAC (California First Amendment Coalition) lawsuit, one would have thought that at the very minimum, the City would have placed the whole GIS on its web-site, or offered an interface to the GIS that would allow residents, and interested parties, to request a “layer”—and then be able to download that data as either a SQL, text, format—so that they could then use this data in their own way.

The current implementation does not seem to off that straight forward convenience. There does seem to be an “Developer’s” interface, but this would seem to be far less accessible from the simple download approach that is available from other government agencies.

Two examples of “raw data” downloads can be found on the CA Department of Education’s WEB-site, and the CHP has, within the last year, added a very useful data access to their SWITRS data—which allows users to request data by year, by city, and so on. The CHP data is in text formats, which are easily loaded in the MySQL database manager (and presumably other SQL database managers, too). The DoED data comes in a number of formats, depending on the group releasing it. However, text is almost always available. Making data available in a text format is the very least that people should expect from a government agency.

The use of “Fusion Tables” is a nice touch, since it means that people who are not otherwise “technical” can make some use of the data. However, it’s not clear how much of the data people can actually download from this implementation. What is clear is that we can not get access to the data in as basic (and useful) formats as provided by the CHP, and the CA DoED.

City of Palo Alto OpenData WEB-site:
Web Link

The City did make multiple formats available for its budget data—which had given me some hope that they would have adopted an internal policy for data release. However, this GIS data seems to be far less accessible that I would have preferred. Of course, most people don’t have much use for data that provides the center of our streets, so not being able to use what we don’t have any use for is probably the best we can expect from the City of Palo Alto.

I had hoped, from the numerous letters I had written to the City Council about data availability that some of those ideas would have found a home. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. So far, all that we seem to be provided in terms of “OpenData” is little more than a digital version of a “Rasputin Village”.