New county website expands public insight into government functions 

click to enlarge COURTESY DATA.SMCGOV.ORG
  • courtesy data.smcgov.org
The mother of a San Mateo County employee recently learned that the county owes her $300, thanks to a new website aimed at giving the public better insight into what local government is doing and where it’s spending money.

The discovery took place at a Data Innovation Day event last week at the County Center in Redwood City. Officials were promoting awareness of their recently launched Open Data Portal and announced, among other things, the addition of a searchable database of unclaimed checks issued by the county, revealing over $1.8 million waiting to be retrieved.

The county site went live in August at data.smcgov.org and contains a trove of statistics ranging from third grade reading scores and unemployment rates to election turnouts and natural gas usage.

“We collect a lot of really great data that people want to see - educational data, crime data. It’s not our data, it’s the public’s data. And now, given the technology, we have the ability to do that,” said Marshall Wilson, a spokesman for the county.

The move towards greater government openness was motivated and funded by voters through their approval of Measure A in 2012, which levied a half-cent sales tax increase to subsidize core quality of life services. An application on the new site measures progress against many of the other Measure A goals.

Among the portal’s various services, taxpayers can quickly check if the county is on track to reduce the homeless population to 2,000 people by 2015, or increase the usage of paratransit services.

They can also discover that the build-out of the Open Data Portal platform by Seattle-based performance reporting developer, Socrata, will cost $460,000 over a two-year period.

Information is indexed, depicted graphically, and written in plain language for easy user consumption.

“When we’re talking to members of the public we need to use different nomenclature. We’ve been working on developing non-government-speak,” said Garrett Dunwoody, a budget and performance specialist for the county.

An Open Checkbook feature lists all county payments to vendors of over $5,000. It is intended to give local businesses better insight into opportunities for acquiring government contracts.

The portal remains a work in progress and the county is soliciting feedback from the public as to what additional information it would like to access.

Officials also hope that tech-inclined residents attending community hack-a-thons and coding events will be able to incorporate the data already available to develop new innovative ideas.

“People have seen data in other communities and developed apps and business models,” said Wilson. “We’re committed to making more and more data available to the public.”

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S. Parker Yesko

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