LA Gives Silicon Valley a Run for its Money on Openness

By Sophia Stuart Features PCmag

It might come as a surprise that Los Angeles outranks not only San Francisco but New York and Chicago in the latest US City Open Data dashboards. The list ranks local government transparency, praising those metropolitan bodies that provide access to stats around local crime, transit, restaurant inspections, zoning, permits, and hitherto hidden budgetary matters.

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LA jumped from No. 17 in 2014 to No. 9 a year later and No. 3 in 2016 behind Las Vegas and Austin, Texas. If you live in LA, it's no secret why: Mayor Eric Garcetti is passionate about data science and its role in open government.

PCMag spoke with Lilian Coral, LA's Chief Data Officer, to find out how her team executes the mayor's vision and captures, analyzes, and shares city data.

Let's start with the Los Angeles GeoHub. Can you explain what it does?
My role is to manage digital projects, oversee digital services, specifically around open data, and spearhead "information as an asset" within each department here at City Hall. We do this by publishing open data and key to that has been centralizing GIS—geographic information systems data—inside the Los Angeles Geo Hub and using it to build data sets, such as CLEANSTAT, which then powers our Clean Streets LA initiative.

So local residents can understand—and report—on street cleanliness?
Local residents can access data on their street segment, and how it compares to the rest of the city, at any time via our GeoHub or Clean Street website. They can also submit tickets via our MyLA311 app. The data captures how our city is faring throughout the year and can be used to extrapolate how areas can change over time, as a result, fulfilling ED 8, the mayor's clean streets pledge of having litter-free streets and neighborhoods. In building CLEANSTAT, we were influenced by the LAPD COMPSTAT model of local policing, which uses more granular data to inform service delivery.

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It's a lot of work for the small team in Room 1613 at City Hall.
Yes, just four of us. But it's a committed group. People want to be a part of changing their city; they want to make a difference. We're also supported by work coming out of local civic hacks and several academic partnerships, including one right now with the University of Southern California. I also speak a lot at local institutions to encourage students to get involved; visibility is important. I'm a naturalized American, born in Colombia. So for me, it's important to do outreach to non-traditional communities to encourage people to get into data science.

Data Science is a very desirable skill. Your team could easily rake in higher salaries at one of the big tech companies up north.
It's true. But unlike working inside a huge team, merely crunching data, we're able to see results pretty instantly. We've built the team mostly off specific grants for project-based data science, so it's really interesting work and draws in people with diverse backgrounds.

For example, we have someone here who has a PhD in Informatics from the University of California, Irvine, a highly respected institution, and department, but her background was initially in communications design at MIT. So I feel we're looking at data in a different way, taking it to the next level.

Can you explain what you mean by 'next level'?
For us, it's not just about transparency but making the data actionable, using sometimes slim resources, but in an innovative way. LA is a data-driven local government and citizens are able to access data in real time to understand what's going. We're now really putting data to work with smart city initiatives involving partnerships around IoT.

Can you give us an example of someone using LA's data to help in their own life/work?
We are collecting data from all over the city and normalizing it to give more people the ability to search— and share—to improve their life/work in the city.

For example, a young fashion entrepreneur might be looking at doing a pop-up store in the Arts District. Soon they'll be able to build an entire picture of the feasibility of their business, using our aggregated data and external data sources, noting public transactional information, demographic breakdown of residents and visitors to the area, to ascertain whether enough of their customer base is around. [They can] pinpoint location by understanding consumer paths—like which restaurants do people stop at, and at what time—even right down to what kind of music are they listening to. This enables the entrepreneur to build a comprehensive profile of her customer.

How will she know about the personal playlists of passers-by?
One of the pilots we're working on will be inclusive of an incentive model so people will want to contribute data to the pool, and feel empowered to share their data at their discretion. In the end, we feel like this will allow for more proactive individual data-sharing and greater public good from more shared access to what's going on in a community—in a cool way.

What's next for your data science team at City Hall?
Our DataLA Summer Academy will kick off on June 10 and the cohort will work together over 12 weeks. We'll pair departments who have needs with students who have specific interests, extend mentoring and development with outside partners. We want to bring in lots of different skills, which is why we have three tracks. If you just love stats and data, you can do that. But if you're a storyteller and want to use data to tell tales about the city, we welcome you. You don't have to be a wonder kid programmer to participate.

In a recent email, Mayor Garcetti told PCMag [that] 'a true Smart City is not just using technology to improve specific facets of urban life, but integrating data to improve the lives of residents, businesses, and visitors.'
I couldn't agree more. We're using data, not for its own sake, but to make LA into the City of the Future.

And thereby make a case for L.A. as the next Olympics host city.
Let's hope so!

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.