(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

Will Hack for Food

Local technologists use open data to feed Californians

Back Longreads Jul 14, 2015 By Allison Joy

State and local governments aren’t known for being cutting edge or tech savvy. But as the open data movement gains momentum, the private sector is becoming more empowered to usher valuable, though often archaic, institutions into the 21st century.

A recent study by Accela, a software and application development company focused on civic engagement, estimates that spending on civic technology will reach $6.4 billion this year. There are 132 Open Data 500 companies in the state of California, and in early June the state Senate passed Senate Bill 537, which calls for the creation of a state chief data officer and the adoption of a statewide open data policy. But already, state and local agencies and technologists are using open data to improve health outcomes in the region. 

Open data involves making public information more readily available and putting it into a format technologists can use. The rationale behind open government data is two-fold. Proponents say readily accessible public data (via the ease of a laptop versus the labor of a written request) enhances government transparency. The second — and potentially more lucrative reason — is that putting all of these maps, charts and statistics into a machine-readable format empowers technologists in the private sector to create tools and applications the government can use to more easily reach end users, increasing the efficacy and use of public services.

“There is this burgeoning movement across the country in civic technology,” says West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. His city is currently hosting three Code for America fellows who are developing tools to increase access to nutritious food. “It’s a growth sector of the economy, and we want to empower that sector to grow in the Sacramento region. Around the country, big companies and small entrepreneurs are diving into the space. For Sacramento to be competitive and a contributor to that work, a central element is that data be open.” 

Related: Touchscreen to Table — West Sacramento to address food access with Code for America

The California Health and Human Services Agency began releasing data sets last year via chhs.data.ca.gov, thanks in part to funding from the California Healthcare Foundation. The portal houses information on everything from environmental and demographic statistics to immunization and mortality rates. Once that data was available through the CHHS portal, the California Department of Public Health set out to collaborate with the technologists of Code for Sacramento to create digital tools. Code for Sacramento is a local brigade of Code for America, a national nonprofit that addresses the widening gap between public and private sectors’ use of technology. 

One of the early results of that collaboration was WICit, an online interactive map that helps users easily locate vendors that accept WIC benefits, the state’s health and nutrition program for women, infants and children. Jesse Rosato, a product engineer for Riskalyze in Auburn and brigade captain for Code for Sacramento says he was able to turn around the project around in a couple of days. Users of the website jumped 50 percent in just the month of May. Since Code for America, and therefore Code for Sacramento, is an open-source advocate, the map’s source code is available online, making it replicable for any interested agency. 
Rosato says creating the application wouldn’t have been possible without the hands-on approach the California Department of Public Health has taken in working with Code for Sacramento to make sure the open data yields positive action and results. 

“It was so important that CDPH came to Code for Sac and worked with us,” he says of the department’s outreach efforts. “They didn’t just drop off some notes and then take off. They brought their data science team and experts. We were able to sit down with them, ask what they thought was valuable, and they steered us in the right direction.” 

That proactive outreach and commitment to collaborating with the private sector is something Code for Sacramento founder and community organizer Ash Roughani, who also has a background in public administration, finds lacking at the city level. 

“The Health and Human Services Agency sees Code for Sacramento as a sandbox where they can try and test ideas and figure out what data sets they should be releasing,” he explains. “They’ve just had this natural inclination to work with us, and frankly it’s something that has been completely lacking at the city level. We talk with people at the city level and they don’t see this as part of their job. They don’t really care what we’re potentially able to create in terms of value in the community. The perception is that they just have some data to publish and then they need to go back to their regular jobs.” 

Last year, West Sacramento became the smallest city in the nation to receive a Code for America fellowship, and in January of this year three fellows arrived to work with the city to use open data to develop a food access tool that would be replicable throughout the region

Cabaldon has been an advocate for open data policies not just on the city level, but across the Central Valley. Last year, West Sacramento became the smallest city in the nation to receive a Code for America fellowship, and in January of this year three fellows arrived to work with the city to use open data to develop a food access tool that would be replicable throughout the region.  

“We talk with people at the city level and they don’t see this as part of their job. They don’t really care what we’re potentially able to create in terms of value in the community. The perception is that they just have some data to publish and then they need to go back to their regular jobs.” Ash Roughani, founder, Code for Sacramento

At the time of publication, the fellows were still entrenched in their discovery process. While civic innovation relies on and starts with open data, the fellows are also reaching out to end users — farmers, food bank volunteers and managers, residents, etc. — to identify pain points and problems in need of solutions. 

“We were hearing over and over again that affordability was an issue, that healthy food was prohibitively expensive for a lot of people, and the things that were really important, like convenience, were being afforded to people with a lot of money and not where the need was greatest,” says Natasha Fernandez-Fountain, a 2015 fellow. “We’re looking at ways to address that head on, which means exploring a solution that would connect money from donors with people to, for example, lower the price of subscriptions to [community-supported agriculture programs].”

If that sounds a bit amorphous, that’s because it is — intentionally. By using the private sector to develop tools, the state is freed from the confines of lengthy budget and proposal approval processes that often require every hour — and dollar — to be earmarked ahead of time. This is what technologists would call a waterfall model for software development: All of the work, from analysis to construction and testing, is done upfront with the aim to launch a final product. Many developers, including those with Code for America and its brigades, favor an agile development model where software is developed incrementally over numerous iterations based on user feedback.

“When you set out to build something, you don’t always have a great picture of what problems you will face,” Rosato says. “A more agile style minimizes hard commitments up front and allows for more flexibility. You’re looking for a minimum viable product, the least amount of work upfront to get something put out there that you can get feedback on, then add more design elements based on that.” 

Roughani thinks the “healthcare.gov catastrophe” resulted, in part, from a waterfall development model that allowed for many technical glitches to slip through the cracks until the site launched. “You do all the requirements up front, and then everyone goes into the dark and comes out with this big bang — that may or may not work.” 

According to Cabaldon, the Code for America fellows are working on prototypes in three to five different areas of the food sector. “The typical government approach would first involve a commissioned task force, a study of all the things that could happen or go wrong. That’s not how the Code for America process works.”

Related: Keeping IT Confidential — Which data is opened and which stays closed

In June, Health 2.0 and the California Healthcare Foundation hosted a health care hackathon in which participants were asked to develop products using the Health and Human Services Agency’s open data portal. The winning tool was an app that makes WIC data more accessible to staff and beneficiaries. Sound familiar? The project, created by a team led by Apptology CEO Rich Foreman, uses the same vendor data as WICit. But the app also offers additional information about WIC programs and offices, other local services that might be of use to WIC users, a calendar of relevant events and the opportunity for user feedback.

“With WICit, you need a fundamental understanding of how the internet works on your phone and that provides some barriers to entry,” Rosato says. “I see [the app] as complementary. The point of data being open is to take multiple stabs at the problem and find solutions that really work for people.”

The fate of SB 537, written by Senator Dr. Richard Pan, now lies with the state assembly. But the open data movement will continue evolving. Yelp users in San Francisco, for example, can now view a restaurant’s health inspection history directly through the app. In Louisville, Ky., open data gathered through GPS trackers inside inhalers led to a map of air-quality hotspots in the city. Chicago’s Purple Binder helps residents find health services they are eligible for. Just how easy California’s state and local governments will make it for our technologists to use the data to problem-solve and enhance services remains to be seen, but the potential is undeniable.

“If you think of innovation as connecting the dots that are out there, the more open data we have, the more dots there are to connect,” Roughani says. 

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