Legislature’s Turn To Consider Open Data

Last month, California HHS embraced the open data movement in health care with a decision to make more data available to the public online.

Now it’s the Legislature’s turn.

California lawmakers are considering four bills designed to make more state data accessible online. The bills are not aimed directly at health care or medical applications but could have a significant effect on how health data is disseminated and shared in California.

“I believe that we will gain a lot of unanticipated lessons about the health of Californians,” said Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), author of one of the open data bills.

“By identifying clusters of disease, for example, we can learn more about and confront the causes of illness. Armed with this information, local communities and the Legislature can act to mitigate environmental variables and our medical research institutions can develop better treatments to improve public health. Open data can also help the medical community predict the development of chronic diseases and optimize treatment options, which will reduce health care costs,” Ting said.

Two Bills Aimed at Local Government, Two at State

Two of the open data bills are aimed at establishing open data registries and practices in county and city governments. Two others are aimed at creating a statewide open data policy and infrastructure overseen by a new “data czar.”

The bills and their proposals:

  • AB 1215, the California Open Data Act, by Ting directs all state agencies to submit standardized data for public access. A chief data officer appointed by the governor would oversee a centralized online information portal. State agencies and departments would appoint a data coordinator to work with the governor’s data czar;
  • SB 573, by Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), is similar to Ting’s California Open Data Act, calling for a statewide framework for open data;
  • SB 272, by Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), directs California’s local governments to catalog and describe data sets available to the public; and
  • AB 169, by Assembly member Brian Maienschein (R-San Diego), specifies that data from local governments be easily accessible and presented in understandable form, as well as help define what the “open” in open data actually means.

While these bills were not conceived or written as a package, they will work together, legislators and open data advocates said, with similar language in bills before the Assembly and Senate.

“I didn’t initially know that each of us was looking at the issue but these bills can and should complement each other,” Ting said. 

Robb Korinke, principal at GrassrootsLab, a California-based public affairs and lobbying firm, said the bills will work together well in California.

“Together these bills would provide a very solid foundation for open data in California. It’s critical that you have both state and local governments involved because the potential of open data is only realized if you do it in this holistic kind of way,” Korinke said

Maienschein and Hertzberg collaborated to some degree on their bills. Maienschein is co-author of Hertzberg’s bill.

“Sen. Hertzberg and Assembly member Maienschein are both very interested in the benefits that open data could bring California,” said Ray Sotero, communications director on Hertzberg’s staff. “The bills were not designed to work in tandem. However, having both bills pass would certainly be a positive step in making California more data friendly,” Sotero said.

‘Next Frontier’

Legislators and policymakers say evidence-based decision making will be enhanced by open data.

“I have always believed in the power of data and technology to improve government and am pleased to see many of my colleagues wanting to move open data legislation forward,” Ting said. 

Last month, California announced it would make more health care data available to the public online. 

A growing array of information on diseases, chronic conditions, demographics, health care workforce, facilities and services is offered on the California HHS Open Data Portal. The idea is that offering all this data to any and all who want to mine it might spark new ideas, new treatments, new approaches to improve public health.

New York, Illinois and California are the first states to open health data troves to the public, but many other states are expected to follow.

“In many ways it’s a godsend that health care is leading with this issue,” Korinke said. “Health care has HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and other large hurdles. The fact that health care has become such a leader in open data is great for advocates like us. We can point to health and say, ‘If they can do it in health care then you can certainly do it in land use planning.'”

Lawmakers and open data advocates say making more information available online will lead to more evidence-driven policy making at local, county and state government levels.

“Open data is the next frontier in government transparency and accountability,” Ting said.

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