The Unique Civic Data Opportunity in Southern California

Posted on 07/06/17 by Patrick Atwater


Projects begun in the enthusiasm of boom years have collapsed with the particular boom or have been abandoned like a wagon wheel in the desert. Reform movements inaugurated during short periods of comparative stability, when the population has begun to take stock of its environment, have been quickly disrupted by new avalanches of population. —Carey McWilliams Southern California Country

The history of boom and bust and population influx has resulted in a curiously convoluted administrative architecture in Southern California's local governance. Exhibit A just look at a map of So Cal's 88 cities and compare to the urban reality you see from space. And that's before you add in the 200 plus water districts, oodles of school districts (neither of which adhere to city boundaries) and the plethora of miscellaneous other municipalities like vector control.

The whole regional governance thing has been talked about again and again and gain yet there really is no clear line beyond the administrative fictions we impose dividing the 20 some odd million people who call SoCal home up. There's also the general confusion of whether LA equals the city or the county or the so cal region minus san diego and the IE / OC though the latter two less so or simply where people root for the dodgers.

Illustrative that many of the hack for LA people live in Santa Monica…

Yet why Southern California and not the world? I say that only somewhat tongue in cheek as the cool thing about the explosion in open data portals around the world is it that the internet is truly global and you can instantaneously see how LA's budget or many other issues compares to cities everywhere (theoretically at least -- often these get buried in format, metadata and provenance quagmires).

Southern California's Unique Opportunity

Here's where we turn LA's famous weakness -- its fragmented, fractionalized Yugoslavia-esque overlapping jurisdictions (see here for a civic tech example) -- into a huge asset.

How? One word: experimentation

A nearly perfect physical environment, Southern California is a great laboratory of experimentation. Here, under ideal testing conditions, one can discover what will work, in houses, clothes, furniture, etc. —Carey McWilliams Southern California Country

Ester Duflo's sort of pioneering work to measure how to best combat poverty leverages randomized control trials that definitely could be used more and better in American cities though there's also a host of experiments all around us that we could exploit.

Water districts that employed different conservation strategies to cope with the drought. Schools that tried different after school programs. Etc. Etc. Etc. It's not as neat and tidy as a RCT but hey nothing in the real world of public affairs ever is as academics would like and what's already happening all around us is radically cheaper: free!

This notion of using experiments to better understand how to effectively tackle civic challenges connects nicely into using these insights as a mechanism to start new civic entrepreneurial endeavors to actually deliver improvements targeted for the specific needs of groups within Southern California's hugely diverse population.

Recently for the first time in over a century, a majority of California's residents were born here. Perhaps we can take the time then to take the pioneering spirit, that willingness to experiment with the new rather than rest with the received idea, and apply it to our brass tacks, bread and butter civic challenges.

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