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BART board approves ‘gold standard’ open data policy, despite misgivings

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BART’s Board of Directors on Thursday voted to open up its data regarding employee salaries, capital spending and parts inventory in an effort to become more transparent. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

BART is set to open the data floodgates.

Agency information that could include employee salaries, capital spending and parts inventory will soon be released in a user-friendly way after the BART Board of Directors unanimously approved a transparency measure Thursday morning.

“There are few things I can think of as important for government agencies, and government as a whole, as being transparent with the public,” said Nick Josefowitz, a BART board director. “We need to be a data-driven agency.”

The open data policy directs BART’s information staff to begin drafting a “road map” to show what an online data portal would look like for the agency, and to research what kind of data they could begin “scraping” to make public, which may even be updated in real time.

BART already has some of the data available, and was the first transit agency in California to share “General Transit Feed Specification” schedules to integrate train arrival times with Google Maps in 2007, according to the district.

But that data is tough to find, and BART describes it as “scattered and inaccessible across BART.gov and internal databases.” The point of the policy approved Thursday is to develop a way to bring old and new data to the public in a far more accessible way –– through visualizations, interactive tools and making data “machine readable” for app-developers, for instance.

Still, not all were immediately on board with the idea. Board director Joel Keller voiced strong misgivings about the initiative before the vote.

Keller said a similar measure at another transit agency –– which directors would not name –– enacted an open data policy in 2014 but “they have nothing to show” for it.

Keller suggested delaying adoption of the open data policy until there was an “implementation plan” created, he said, “so that we’re not just taking an action that we have no way of guaranteeing the public is going to see any benefit at all.”

But BART Chief Information Officer Ravindra Misra said having an open data policy approved by the BART board would help staff collect internal data. Information staff do not “own” BART data, he said. Rather, many departments in BART own data particular to their departments.

“That requires us some time” to collaborate with those departments, Misra said, and “policy definitely helps in terms of that collaboration, it gives direction” and funding.

The policy is projected by BART to cost $250,000 during fiscal year 2018, but staff said as they “create an inventory of data sets” to release, that process would inform the budget as they go.

But that cost may be defrayed by implementing the data measure, Misra told the board.

Much of Misra’s work involves fulfilling public records requests, he told the San Francisco Examiner.

“We get bombarded really heavily in terms of public records requests,” he said. But once there’s public data, he said, interested citizens can be pointed there for their requests instead –– saving money while providing fuller access.

BART’s information staff were directed to create an implementation plan, which they may introduce by June or July, Misra told the Examiner.

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