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How much do 'open data' portals cost So Cal governments?

Data patch cords route communications through a typical office on September 1, 2009 in Washington, DC. On September 2, 1969, Len Kleinrock passed data between two computers through a 15-foot cable in a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the first test in what would become the internet.     AFP PHOTO/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Data patch cords in Washington, DC. In 1969, UCLA professor Len Kleinrock passed data between two computers through a 15-foot cable in a lab, the first test in what would become the internet.

Cities and counties are increasingly embracing "open data", launching sites that allow residents to explore and download government information—but costs of those data portals can vary significantly, a KPCC analysis of contracts found.

For instance, Culver City and West Hollywood are a few miles apart from one another, and have roughly similar populations. They both maintain open data portals with Socrata, a Seattle-based startup that's a dominant player in government data.

Yet Culver City pays $28,000, nearly twice what West Hollywood does. And despite the higher price, the Culver City has stricter limits on what it can upload: 15 data sets, instead of 50.

"We did not go through a lot of back and forth on the price," said Culver City's Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Muir. He said there were few alternatives to Socrata and he reached out to the company directly.

"For us, it was more about being as transparent as possible," Muir said.

El Segundo and Bell both contract with OpenGov to share budgeting information 0nline. El Segundo pays $7,500 a year for its OpenGov site, but Bell only pays $1,800 each year, even though the city has twice the population.

Opening up data, for a fee

While open data sites are small expenses in the context of a city budget, the cost could multiply statewide. A series of bills before the California legislature could expand the number of municipalities creating open data portals. The websites can include everything from 311 call logs to data about trees.

Muir, of Culver City, said the public's response to the site has been positive, though it doesn't garner much web traffic. "We can't make people use it."

Unlike Culver City, West Hollywood's I.T. department received proposals from three companies: Socrata, Junar and OpenGov. City spokesman Joshua Schare said the city preferred Socrata's look and options, and kept the cost down by limiting features.

This year, West Hollywood's bill for its Socrata site is $15,983.

In an effort to collect information on such sites in Southern California, KPCC requested contracts with several cities and counties. We posted all 19 contracts on our Github page.

Comparing costs

There's no standard for measuring the value or cost-effectiveness of a government data portal. Even comparing one dataset to another can be apples-to-oranges: a single large data set could contain more information than fifty small ones.

Socrata's contracts list only total cost, making it difficult to tell how each feature of the portal is priced. Beyond the basic site, a city can buy extra data sets, a "budget explorer", customer support, training and other add-ons.

Socrata declined to discuss its pricing for this story. But breaking down Socrata contracts by cost per data set and cost per capita demonstrates how much government costs can differ.

Costs for Socrata's services range widely. The City of Los Angeles pays the company $400,000 a year for two separate portals.

Socrata has won contracts with the federal government and states from New York to Washington. But it isn't the only game in town.

One of Socrata's competitors, Junar, contracts with Pasadena, Glendale and Santa Clarita.

Junar CEO Diego May said when it comes to pricing and services, the company takes into account a city's size. According to May, cities under 10,000 people have too few resources to maintain a data portal. Above that, his company classifies cities into five tiers for pricing.

Junar customers in Southern California don't have a cap on data sets, but add-ons can boost the cost of contracts. Pasadena pays about three times per capita what Anaheim does for its Junar site, though it has less than half the residents. That's because it paid for an add-on that allows users to manipulate the data.

Such add-ons don't affect the amount of information a city can share online.

City Annual cost of Junar contract Population Cost per 1,000 residents
Pasadena $20,666.67 139,727 $147.91
Anaheim $18,000 345,015 $52.17
Santa Clarita $7,200 179,582 $40.09

OpenGov is another data contractor. It offers simple, colorful visualizations of city budgets.

OpenGov's contracts with Southern California governments jump around in terms of pricing, though the price tags are smaller for its more limited tool.

OpenGov's Ceci De La Montanya said the company prices its product based on the budget of the governments it contracts with, and that cities that joined the service early, such as Bell, received discounts.

Agency Annual cost of OpenGov Contract Population Cost per 1,000 residents
Los Angeles (city) $25,000.00 3,884,340 $6.44
Orange County $24,000.00 3,114,363 $7.71
Riverside (city) $12,000.00 316,613 $37.90
El Segundo $7,500.00 16,760 $447.49
Manhattan Beach $5,000.00 35,490 $140.88
West Covina $3,500.00 107,741 $32.49
Calabasas $1,900.00 23,938 $79.37
Bell $1,800.00 35,831 $50.24

A handful of bills making their way through the legislature in Sacramento could spur more cities and counties to introduce their own data sites. Most significantly, pending legislation could establish the state's first Chief Data Officer and require the state to centralize the data it offers online.

The salary costs for those efforts would likely be around $4 to $5 million a year, according to a Milken Institute report. That would cover management and web development salaries. Any contract for a new statewide data site would come on top of that.

In Southern California, not all open data sites rely on third-party vendors. Los Angeles County maintains an online clearinghouse for its geographic data.

The geographic, or GIS, data portal has been up for years. The county's Geographic Information Officer, Mark Greninger, said it was built and maintained by county employees. "Free is nice," he said.

L.A. County also has a Socrata-hosted site, which launched in May. That contract totals $892,824 over three years.