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New San Diego Data Chief Wants To Get Government Records In Public’s Hands

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

The city of Boston lets citizens track its spending online. In Oakland, public records requests are posted on the city's website. Government tools like these may be coming to San Diego.

The city of Boston lets citizens track its spending online. In Oakland, public records requests are posted on the city's website.

Government tools like these may be coming to San Diego. Local officials are pushing policy to open more of the city's information to the public.

Ben Katz of Open San Diego said identifying and releasing city records in a format San Diegans can use is crucial.

"The city is sitting on a huge amount of data about our streets, about our police, our fire, about our libraries — everything that the city does, there’s data about it," said Katz, a web developer. "And that data can help us improve decision making. It can help us find out what’s happening well, what’s happening badly. It can help us do things better."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Open San Diego's Ben Katz discusses open data in an interview with KPBS News, Dec. 5, 2014.

The job to do this comes down to one man: Maksim Pecherskiy.

He’s San Diego’s newest hire and its first chief data officer — a 27-year-old Russian-born, Chicago-raised web developer who intends to single-handedly crack open the city’s data. (Katz actually helped the city hire him.)

“One of the things I’m hoping to do is allow citizens to engage with the city," said Pecherskiy, whose job pays $100,000 a year. "One of those things is building apps or also increasing internal efficiencies in government."

That's what he spent much of this year doing in Puerto Rico. Pecherskiy helped design PrimerPeso, a website that easily connects current or aspiring business owners with government grant programs. Users fill out a short survey about themselves and their businesses, and the website creates a custom list of opportunities they can apply for.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer has received some criticism for not moving quickly enough on his promises of open government. Katz acknowledged hiring a data chief took some time but said he's pleased with the new hire.

After only nine days on the job in San Diego, Pecherskiy’s already jazzed about launching projects similar to what he produced in Puerto Rico.

Tracking The City's Progress On Open Data

The City Council will take up San Diego's open data policy on Dec. 16 for final approval. Chief Data Officer Maksim Pecherskiy will also give a presentation on how he plans to carry out his responsibilities.

"I want to go through and see, 'How do I open a business in San Diego? What is it I need?' And then kind of go through that whole process and see where can we find holes and at least initially quick wins and then afterwards, you know, kind of build on that," he said.

Some city departments got a head start on posting data before Pecherskiy came on board.

The Development Services Department's recently launched OpenDSD, which lets you find building permits or code enforcement cases in your neighborhood.

Head of the San Diego Community Planners Committee, Joe LaCava, said the site is helpful with routine phone calls he gets from citizens concerned about construction in their neighborhoods.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

San Diego Community Planners Committee Chair Joe LaCava speaks with KPBS Metro Reporter Tarryn Mento, Dec. 5, 2014.

"With OpenDSD available to me, while we’re on the phone I could actually open it up, zero in and give them all the information. And in that case, the fact that there was a valid permit they were perfectly satisfied," he said.

LaCava said websites like OpenDSD could help free up city employees for other projects because they don't have to field as many calls or requests for information already online.

Pecherskiy said it’s these kinds of efficiencies he'd like to create.

"I think the most valuable things is like I want to know what bothers people right now, and from those just have a little notebook going with some ideas," he said.

So if you want to let Pecherskiy know what bugs you, send him an email at maksimp@sandiego.gov or tweet him. Or if you just want to know what he’s up to, check out his GitHub page where he publishes his code for public use, even for city projects.

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