With 63 individual government agencies, Virginia amasses mountains of data. As of last week, the commonwealth will now have someone tasked with making sense of all those datasets and applying them to its challenges after Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation authorizing the creation of a statewide chief data officer.
The creation of a data officer was sponsored by State Sen. Emmett Hanger and Del. Scott Garrett, Republicans from the Shenandoah Valley, though the Democratic Northam was also an early backer of adding the position. Supporters of Hanger and Garrett’s bill said the data officer role will be useful as Virginia expands Medicaid and looks for ways to combat opioid addiction throughout the state.
The Northern Virginia Technology Council, a trade group in the D.C. suburbs, also lobbied for the creation of a chief data officer. One of the new position’s top priorities should be to evaluate just what data the state government has on file, said Troy Murphy, the group’s public policy manager.
“One of the chief things the chief data officer can do is improve the visibility of what data is available in Virginia,” he said. “We don’t know all the data Virginia holds right now. If the chief data officer can tackle that as one of their first priorities that’d be a huge opportunity.”
Virginia has an open-data website maintained by the state library in Richmond. The site launched in 2014 under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but the state has continued to score low marks for its transparency. The Center for Public Integrity ranked the state 38th out of 50 for public access to information in its 2015 State Integrity report card.
“We do know there’s a ton of data out there,” Murphy said. “The key initially is getting other agencies access to that data.”
Murphy said the chief data officer will also be expected to coordinate information sharing between Richmond and local governments and the private sector.
The chief data officer became popular in the private sector in the early 2000s. Colorado was the first state to create the position in 2010. Since then, another 17 states and the District of Columbia have hired governmentwide data officers.
There’s no exact timeline for when Northam will hire a data officer but the move marks the latest step in Virginia’s reorganization of its information technology leadership. The eventual chief data officer will report to the Department of Administration, and be tasked with creating procedures for state government agencies to better share data with each other and the public.
Last week, Northam also announced the hiring of Richmond tech executive Robby Demeria as the state’s new deputy secretary of commerce and trade for technology, who’ll oversee projects like rural broadband expansion and cybersecurity planning. Another sub-cabinet position overseeing statewide tech policy remains vacant. Northam in March re-appointed Nelson Moe as the state’s chief information officer.