Palo Alto: The city as open digital platform

In California, the phrase “city government” often means dysfunction and financial incompetence. That’s why a new initiative by Palo Alto is so striking: in one stroke, the city’s government has become more transparent, efficient and … beautiful.

In partnership with a local start-up, Palo Alto today launched a service called Open Budget that pulls up the hood on the city’s finances and lets people see how it runs. While towns across the country are making efforts to share their documents, Palo Alto’s new tool stands out for its clean, comprehensive charts.

The tools let people use filters to view the revenues and expenses for different departments and see how they change year over year. For example, here’s a quick look at Palo Alto’s recent expenses for city officials:

And here’s a look at the city’s growing obligation to retired workers;

The Open Budget tool also provides ways to examine budget items like capital expenses or debt servicing in a ways that PDFs do not. The numbers will be updated to reflect changes during a fiscal year, and users can easily download the data to a spreadsheet.

The city as platform

The open budget project is just one way that Palo Alto uses data and technology to remake its civic infrastructure. The city has also worked with cloud service, Junar, to harness its data on everything from zoning to street sweeping to water levels and offer it up as an API. In practice, this means someone could use the API to make an app to help explore the city’s parks or real estate.

“It’s about building and enabling a leading digital city by eliminating barriers between government and citizens,” said Jonathan Reichental, a longtime O’Reilly Media executive who became Palo Alto’s CIO last year. In a phone interview, he explained that cities can use the data they possess to become a “platform” for their citizens and that financial data is a “sweet spot” for such initiatives.

To make Open Budget a reality, Palo Alto entered a public-private partnership with Delphi Solutions, a company launched by Stanford students that aims to improve government performance. Reichental says that some of the information can be offered through its existing Junar API, but that Palo Alto turned to Delphi for Open Budget because of the complexity of financial data.

According to Reichental, Delphi’s tools not only provide transparency but offer an opportunity for cities to save money in managing their data.  Delphi is also working on benchmarking tools that will make it possible to compare the performance of different cities, he added.

Can data save California’s cities?

Palo Alto may be an inspiration but it could also be an outlier. While its citizens revel in digital plenty, their counterparts in bankrupt Stockton and Vallejo face the prospect of turned-off traffic lights. And in blue collar Bell, California, city officials await trial for pocketing the town’s budget.

If these cities can’t even manage basic services, is it realistic to expect them to embrace new-fangled data tools? And could places like those in the hard luck Central Valley even find people like Reichental to implement them?

They may have to try. As my colleague Derrick Harris has reported, cities who can collect and analyze data have been able to improve efficiency and save money on everything from streets to sewers.

There is also hope in the fact that tools like Open Budget provide citizens and journalists with unprecedented opportunities to demand accountability from city leaders. Even in an age when newspapers can no longer afford to send reporters to council meetings, the power to parse reams of data with the click of a mouse is as a check on power.

If Open Budget spreads to cities across the state, citizens may soon be able to compare their towns’ respective police and library budgets and create a virtuous cycle of civic improvement. Alternately, we may see yet another form of the digital divide in which Palo Alto residents get apps while Stockton residents work to keep the street lights on.

(Image by DJ40 via Shutterstock)