Public attention mostly was elsewhere early last month when the N.J. Open Data Initiative was signed into law. When its goal of easy, central access to all available state government information is realized, the measure will be seen as a landmark in public access and government accountability.
Journalists probably underrated the bill, sponsored by Jeff Van Drew and four other state senators, because it doesn’t require agencies to make available data that isn’t currently accessible somewhere. Open Public Records Act requests will still be necessary for information not already public.
But the improvement in access to the vast realm of state data already available will make the work of journalists and researchers easier and more effective. Perhaps more importantly, it will enable the public — even people with limited computer and internet skills — to readily find essential information about the operations and performance of most parts of government.
The core of the initiative mandates the creation of a universal online site for state information. All agencies — including departments, authorities, boards and commissions — must provide either their data for posting on the site or links to take visitors directly to the data on their own websites. They also must create and make available an inventory of their available information, including how often it is updated and how people can be notified when it’s available.
The Open Data site will offer one-stop shopping — with no fees unless required by existing laws — for spending and revenue figures, employee salaries and pensions, crime statistics, average property taxes, school performance reports, hospital report cards and much, much more.
Given government’s occasionally poor technology skills and implementation — such as the Affordable Care Act rollout debacle — there’s a legitimate concern about how soon and how well the state will do the computer work necessary. Provisions in the new law make a good outcome more likely.
A new chief data officer in the Treasury Department will be responsible for the creation and management of the data clearinghouse. That officer will develop standard formats to be used by all agencies and ensure the data is secure and kept up to date.
The state’s existing chief technology officer will report to the Legislature in two years on the law’s implementation and the function of the Open Data site. The report also will include a review of the feasibility of requiring judiciary and Legislature data on the site as well. That would be a major improvement to what is sure to be a great public benefit.