One-Stop Online Source for All Data to Make Government in NJ More Transparent

Colleen O'Dea | February 7, 2017 | Politics
New Jersey Open Data Initiative should make it easier for public to find all manner of state information

Credit: NewsWorks
Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden) is a sponsor of the new open data law.
Gov. Chris Christie on Monday signed into law a measure that will increase the transparency and accountability of state agencies by making it easier for the public to find and get data and other information kept by the state government — all at one central online location.

Called the New Jersey Open Data Initiative, the law emulates models used elsewhere around the nation and in cities in the state — including Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken — where so-called open data or open government portals serve as repositories for data sets, maps, meeting notices, reports, and other information.

“This is a clearinghouse, where all data is going to be in one place,” said Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), a sponsor of the new law. “It’s just common sense. Let me have just one place to find information, with one person managing one site.”

Everything to be available at one location

As such, it should become a place where anyone could find in one location average local property taxes, local School Performance Reports, local hospitals’ report card scores, crime statistics, and other information currently stored on individual agency websites. That should make it useful not only to reporters and researchers but also to the general public.

It should expand upon the state’s current open data sites — the Open Data Center and the state Transparency Center — which primarily have financial data, including on salaries for state employees, pension information for public retirees and revenue, expenditure and debt data, but also some mapping files and a licensed child care center search function.

Cruz-Perez said she became convinced the state needs a single data site while attending a governmental meeting in Camden. Someone was discussing statistics, and when Cruz-Perez asked where the data was coming from, she was told that officials had to go to 10 different sites to get it. “They’re trying to save money, but they had to waste a ton of hours finding all this data,” she said.

The law will require that all state agencies — including authorities, boards and commissions — either provide their open data for inclusion on a state website or provide links to their data that would be included on the universal site that, on clicking, would take users from the state portal to the data stored on the agency’s own site. Each office will also have to create an inventory of all its open data and datasets including how often the data is updated and how people can receive notices of updates, information that is not readily available now.

It pushes state agencies ‘to be honest in their reporting…’

“This Legislation is a major step forward for our State, particularly as it relates to transparency,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic). “The regulatory oversight will push our State agencies to be honest in their reporting and data collection mechanisms. But most importantly, most of the data will be available to the public at no cost.”

The law requires that all the data be made available for free unless a fee is required by state law and without the need for users to have to log in by name or provide other information about themselves.

To oversee the open data site and manage all the data, the state will appoint a chief data officer within the Department of Treasury. The officer will develop standard formats to be used by all agencies and monitor their sites to make sure they follow uniform policies and procedures, including security standards to ensure data cannot be tampered with by hackers or others, and update their data as required.

It is unclear whether the new law will lead to additional public data that some state departments may have but do not now post online being made more easily available to people without the need for filing a request for it under the state’s Open Public Records Act. While the language of the bill Christie signed talks broadly of “open data,” it also states, “Nothing in this section shall require an agency to make its open data and datasets available to the public on the open data website upon the demand of the public. Requests for open data or datasets not posted on the open data website are subject to potential disclosure under (OPRA).”

Ease of access could prove costly

Still, creating a one-stop shopping site for records that already are posted online should prove helpful even to researchers and those familiar with finding data, as it can now take multiple clicks to find certain data, if one even knows where to look. It could also make more accessible some databases that are now relatively difficult to navigate, as the new law requires that.

This ease of access could prove costly. The Office of Legislative Services said it could not provide an estimate, but said it will cost more to “create new websites, hire personnel to manage the sites and the flow of information thereon, provide training for such personnel, and acquire the necessary computer equipment and security the new system would require.” OLS added that it’s possible the additional costs “may be absorbable using existing resources by the departments and agencies that are affected.”

Cruz-Perez said the law will ultimately provide a cost savings.

“This bill is actually going to save money,” she said. “It will save hours in research time people are spending to try to get information, if they can get it at all.”

The measure received strong support in both houses, passing the Senate by a 30-9 vote last June and the Assembly 72-2 last December. Republicans cast all the negative votes.

Christie did not make any comment on signing the law. It takes effect in 90 days but does not envision the open data site will be operating immediately. It requires the state’s chief technology officer to report to the Legislature in two years on the progress of implementing the law and its effectiveness at making it easier for people and other agencies to find data. That report also must include an opinion on the feasibility of requiring the Legislature and judiciary to similarly make open data and information available to the public and other agencies.