In highly complex governmental environments, open data in and of itself will not enable common understanding, collaboration or problem-solving unless it's organized and can be visualized in a way that makes sense to those who need it. Few governments match that of California in size or complexity, but in the end most of the state's work still relates to a place — a neighborhood or a city or a watershed. Fittingly, the state just took a very large step toward organizing its data around place.

Last November, Amy Tong, the state's CIO and director of the California Department of Technology (CDT), and her team began work in partnership with the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps) and Gov. Gavin Newsom's office to build the California State Geoportal, a centralized geographic open data repository. It was launched in just seven weeks, on Dec. 23.

The Geoportal, built on Esri's ArcGIS platform, already includes over 1,200 data sets from more than 30 state government departments, including data on water quality, public transportation, wildfires and much more. Users can interact with the different data sets on the platform, adding layers to maps with a suite of analytical tools.

To pull this platform together so quickly, CDT, GovOps, and the governor's office put together a small task force of geographic information systems specialists from agencies throughout the state. Tong and Michael Wilkening, Gov. Newsom's special adviser on innovation and digital services, acknowledged that this effort would not have been possible without the collaborative spirit and willingness to help of those across the state government's GIS community. They also noted that the fact that most state agencies were already using the same geographical platforms was instrumental in bringing the Geoportal together in such a short time frame.

To gain momentum for the platform's widespread use, the task force is currently working to get agencies across the state to experiment with it. They hope users will provide feedback for further improvements. Tong mentioned that the biggest problem the state has had with its GIS data is a lack of standardization, and she said the most important internal benefit of the Geoportal is that as the platform is built out users are being forced to have a conversation about "what does an authoritative data set look like?" Right now, the team is working to implement data standards that ensure that the state's data is properly vetted and there is greater consistency and credibility to what the public sees on the platform.

Over the long term, their goal is an ambitious one: to integrate the Geoportal with the state's four-year-old state-government-wide Open Data Portal so that there is truly one central repository. The goal is for the larger portal to become not just a place that citizens turn to for information but also the go-to place for government agencies to exchange data and conduct analysis for their work.

Tong and Wilkening said that the keys to the success of this effort were twofold. First, they knew that governments often fall victim to the perception that the product that they need to deliver must be perfect at the outset. Instead, they said, it was important to set expectations up front that this platform would need several rounds of iterations and that it was important that it be made available right away so that feedback could be provided. Second, they understood that not all agencies would buy in to the project in the short term. That's why the team first approached agencies that would be most excited to have access to this type of platform. The state's natural resources, health and human services, and environmental protection agencies were critical to getting the effort off the ground.

In late January, Newsom appointed Joy Bonaguro as the state's newest chief data officer. Bonaguro, who previously held that position with San Francisco's government, will be tasked with refining and executing California's open data strategy to make the state's data more discoverable and actionable for the public. The improvement of the Geoportal and the older Open Data Portal, and their eventual integration, will play a key role in achieving that. Eventually the portals will also allow local governments to directly transfer relevant data.

Bringing local governments into the picture underlines the overarching goal of ambitious open data efforts like California's: information-enriched collaboration across jurisdictions, agencies and sectors. Understanding the layered reality of what affects them is the key to more quickly and effectively addressing the needs of both the public sector and the residents and businesses that government serves.