Zac Townsend is settling in to his role as the state of California's first-ever chief data officer since being appointed to the new position in late June. For the past two-plus months, he has gone on a listening tour to get acquainted with the state government.
In a wide-ranging Q&A recently with Techwire, Townsend said he has spoken to many people — both in government and in the private sector. In one segment of the interview, Townsend shared his impressions about the role vendors could play as he and California state government continue to work on data-focused projects moving forward. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Techwire: What are your thoughts on how the private sector might be able to help California with its many data projects?
Townsend: "I'll be honest, Silicon Valley is certainly becoming a little more political, for better or worse, in the sense that they're realizing that governments matter and I think that has a wide range of implications. You can see the dialog changing in the Bay Area around housing, housing policy, around AirBnB and Uber. In general I think there has been a recognition that government matters, that regulation matters, and that being engaged — whether in the private sector, or in my case as many other people who've chosen to serve going into government.
"As far as engaging on the data front itself, I've been having some conversations. People reach out to me or GovOps Secretary Batjer before I was here, about what sort of data the state government could release [to the private sector] that could be helpful. One example is Caltrans: Ir's not the most beautiful API in the world, but Caltrans releases a ton of data every day on traffic. And Waze and Uber and Google and Apple all use that date very day. So I do think we want to engage those partners, we want to think about what data the state has that might be useful. All those companies are mapping companies, and the state has a lot of data on roads. And that's historically how we've engaged them. But I think across the spectrum I'm interested and open to finding partnerships or data that we have that could be useful to the private sector.
"As for vendors, to be candid, it's just not up to me. There are certain things we hope to accomplish, like we have an open data portal. There was a bid, there was a [procurement] process. But I think the most important thing here, and whether it's [California's] child welfare work or any number of things the state is doing, I think what you're seeing is that, whether it's California or others, governments and vendors have gone in lockstep together and gotten further and further away from the most modern technologies. And that makes a lot of sense because, governments want to be conservative and wants things that work — and the vendors become more conservative because they're not selling you agile solutions, or agile solutions. And you're in this weird symbiotic relationship where you just spiral toward having big IT systems that are built in a certain way.
"I think what you're seeing now, at all levels of government, is you're breaking out of that. Maybe vendors that I've talked to are relieved. It's not like these vendors don't have huge arms selling to the private sector that aren't doing modern, innovative and interesting work. For some of them they've had to keep around legacy technology and infrastructure just be cause that's what their government clients want to buy. So I really so more enthusiasm than apprehension about new solutions [integrating data] that have outcome measures, a data dashboard for a department director or program manger to see what's happening operationally in real time. Yeah, I think those are all conversations that are happening, but again, those are conversations that definitely driven by Amy Tong, our state CIO, and the Department of Technology. But I've only seen enthusiasm about my role and the type of work we're hoping to do in the future."
Read the full Q&A with Zac Townsend in a future edition of Techwire.