Among the defining achievements of this generation, one of the most transformative will be the use of technological innovation to democratize access to information of all kinds.
The ease with which technology allows us to gather and disperse information has already had major impacts on our day-to-day lives. These innovations allow us to exchange ideas, goods and services on a global scale. News from all corners of the globe is available on your smartphone as quickly and conveniently as information about when your next bus is arriving.
At the local level, the information revolution sparked by advances in technology has the potential to have a truly profound impact. There is a new “open data” movement sweeping all levels of government in the U.S. Santa Monica, with its historical commitment to transparency and good governance, should be at the forefront.
Through Santa Monica’s open data portal, anyone can access real-time bus arrival information, a count of service calls police and fire personnel answered in your neighborhood last month, the cost of construction permits, locations of CityWiFi hotspots, salaries of public officials, the location and types of all the city’s street trees and much more information about your city.
Our new city manager has some experience in this area. In Los Angeles, Rick Cole was the deputy mayor in charge of budget and innovation. In that role, he led Los Angeles’ open data effort. Now Los Angeles is the second highest-rated city, up from number 17 in 2014, in the U.S. Open Data Census, right behind San Francisco. Santa Monica currently ranks number seven.
Santa Monica is already a paragon of transparent government, but increasing the availability of information will help the city tell the story of its many successes. Easily accessible information and facts can help us better understand how many people take advantage of the tens of millions of dollars Santa Monica has invested into creating new, and rehabilitating existing, parks and open space, how many children have benefited from our ongoing commitment to quality education starting at birth and how many traffic-related injuries and deaths we have prevented by making our streets safer for everyone.
Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project, through which the city hopes to define, measure and actively improve the myriad factors that contribute to our wellbeing, is an example of a policy initiative based on facts. The premise is simple: to find solutions to problems facing our community, we must first find out what those problems actually are. The results can be surprising.
When the facts are clear and generally accessible, they become an antidote to sloganeering based on misinformation.
The clich√© that everyone drives in Southern California is belied by the fact that some 17 percent of Santa Monica renters don’t own cars. In LA, it’s 19 percent. This is more than a fun factoid; this is information that should be guiding our planning policies. Instead of building the future of our city on the assumption that everyone drives, we can create policies that take into account how people really live.
We all hate traffic, but not everyone understands the facts behind traffic congestion. We have encouraged people to choose to drive to our Downtown, over other options, by building much more parking than we really need.
For example, according to the city’s open data portal, our newest Downtown parking structure has been full for a total of 25 minutes since May 1. On average, two-thirds of the parking spaces in the structure sit empty. Providing convenient, cheap, and reliable transit options, like bike-share, bus and light rail can get people out of their cars. So can building more housing near our major job centers, like the Water Garden, the Colorado Center and Downtown Santa Monica, since much of our traffic congestion is a result of people driving to work from out of town.
The notion that Downtown Santa Monica has become exclusively a playground for tourists is another example of a political meme that is simply not true. Besides being home to about 4,000 residents, nearly two-thirds of residents who don’t live Downtown visit the area at least once a month. Can we make Downtown better? Absolutely, but the facts show that this isn’t a simple “us versus them” scenario, as some would frame it.
And what about housing? In the acrimonious debates about the city’s future, much misinformation has been bandied about. This is something that can easily be addressed by putting the facts in an accessible place online like the city’s open data portal.
Despite exaggerated claims to the contrary, the number of new apartments currently awaiting approval is about 1,400. There is no guarantee all of them will get approved and it will likely take years for those that do to go through the city’s process. But, if we believe housing is a priority, this fact should cause us to reflect on how we can encourage more housing, not less, in the next few years.
At no other time in human history has it been so easy for such a wide swath of the population to see the reasons behind and consequences of their governments’ decisions.
Whether this additional transparency leads to better governance will depend, in part, on how many are using these facts to inform their views.
One thing is certain, however. We will be better off if our civic discourse starts with the facts. Only then can we reasonably know whether we are truly advancing the values that are the foundation of our community.
Leslie Lambert, Juan Matute, Jason Islas, Debbie Mulvaney, Craig Hamilton, Carl Hansen, Ernie Powell, Ana Jara, and Judy Abdo for Santa Monica Forward. Read previous columns at www.santamonicaforward.org/news.