Pushing for open data that makes a difference, Sunlight Foundation publishes tactical guide
September 19, 2017
A lot of cities publish data, but not in ways that matter to the people, the group says.
Gov. Chris Christie approved new commitments to transparency that build upon the state's ongoing open data efforts.
Colin Wood is the managing editor of StateScoop. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine. Before that, he taught Engl...
Signed into law Monday, a New Jersey Open Data Initiative requires state agencies to either provide datasets to the state's chief data officer for publication on a central data portal or to publish data on their respective websites.
The state already operates an open data portal, but the new legislation requires the CDO to establish and enforce rigorous standards and best practices for data formatting, sharing and frequency of updates that are expected to bring new depths of maturity to what have so far been ad-hoc efforts. The legislation signed by Gov. Chris Christie also formalizes an operational role held by deputy chief technology officer Liz Rowe, who is now officially the state's chief data officer.
The initiative compels state Chief Technology Officer Dave Weinstein to consult with the state treasurer — Ford Scudder — and direct Rowe in the creation of an open data portal. Agencies that choose not to share data with Rowe will be required to supply her office with links to the datasets published on their own portals.
In a prepared statement emailed to StateScoop, Rowe highlighted the importance of public service and preservation of the state's cybersecurity posture as the open data portal is deployed.
"I believe that effective and efficient integration, management and governance of data and information improve service delivery to New Jersey citizens, enhancing their lives and improving outcomes and that the State has a duty to safeguard and use appropriately the public, private and confidential information to which it has been entrusted," Rowe said.
New Jersey's initiative is encouraging on several fronts, said Stephen Larrick, open data project lead at the Sunlight Foundation.
"New Jersey joins what is I believe is still a minority of states with a statewide open data policy," Larrick said. "One thing we're seeing is that … many local governments are starting with an open data portal and as they see early successes, they codify best practice across all agencies."
Formalizing the chief data officer's role — as New Jersey has done — is crucial to the success of a state data portal, according to the Sunglight Foundation's preliminary research, which draws a correlation between policies that do so and their ability to publish and make use of data.
"Some open data policies create a broad mandate that's either unfunded or vague," Larrick said. "It's almost a symbolic commitment [in other states] that the public has a right to this and is kind of shoddy on the details of who is responsible for making it happen."
Larrick also praised the initiative for syncing open data publication requirements with the state's existing open records laws.
"Although, like most open data policies, New Jersey's explicitly denies any warranty for data provided, I found the following language somewhat refreshing, as many jurisdictions don't even allow for liability in situations of intentional or gross misconduct," Larrick said, referencing the following passage:
"The electronic data sets that a State department or agency provides [...] shall be available to the public for informational purposes only. [...] Any department or agency providing an electronic data set shall not be liable for any deficiencies in its completeness or accuracy, except when the department’s or agency’s conduct would constitute gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, or intentional misconduct."
In two years, the CTO will be required to report on the progress of the initiative, another best practice implemented by the state that Larrick called "impressive."
Making this data available to the public will incur new costs to the state, according to fiscal analysis provided by the Office of Legislative Services, though exact costs were not available. Possible outlays identified by the document include the creation of new systems and standards, the hire of additional staff for regular publication and maintenance, training, and new security measures.