How do we make government data available in a useful format?
I’m spending the day at our first OpenDataNJ conference here at Montclair State. Lots of local government officials, developers and journalists here to figure out what data should be public and what’s the best way to do it.
12:00 – Seth Wainer of the City of Newark talks about the practical headaches of publishing data. PDFs are a huge problem because they are not easy to convert to usable data. His suggestion – do what you can to get rid of the PDFs before they are created.
11:45 – Mike Magyar, a journalist with New Jersey Spotlight, points out that while we’re all talking about how to make government data more available, government officials have a bad habit of hiding it when it serves their purposes. He cites examples of some of his analysis of New Jersey property tax data and how the Christie administration has stopped publishing some data after he used it to show that the relative increases in property taxes between the Christie and Corzine administrations were not that different.
11:30 – Dr. John Hasse, of Rowan University, talking about the value of GIS location data, and a project he is working on at Rowan. In New Jersey there are 565 municipalities, so you have 565 decision-making bodies and they often do not make smart decisions. New Jersey also has strong land use laws, so a lot of important decisions with a big impact on the economy and the environment are done at a very local level.
The goal of his project is to take local data and map it according to GIS. They have four themes posted so far, for all 565 towns in the state. The goal is to make the data modular so it can be used easily by other folks.
Their prime focus is environmental, so they’re looking at land use, watersheds and impervious surfaces, farmland preservation, wildlife habitat and urban growth.
Here’s a link to their site: http://njmap.rowan.edu/
10:45 – So far one obvious issue is that big cities have the resources to do it while smaller ones are way behind. One good suggestion – smaller towns should start by putting data online that they already have in usable form, such as business licenses or property tax assessments. One idea – In Philadelphia, a software company volunteered their time to build the first version of the city’s data web site in exchange for getting some visibility in local government.
11:00 – Matthew Clark, Director of Office of Records Management for Monmouth County, says one trick is to offload as much of the data entry as possible to the data submitter, i.e., the person who fills out the form. Public wins, because they can fill out applications online, from home. Town wins because they need less clerical help and the data can easily be put online.
This also makes it much easier and faster for government officials to know what is going on. For example, in Monmouth County, after Superstorm Sandy, it was a huge advantage for government officials to have real-time data of damage claims being filed to guide their response. After a flyover of the area, the damage did not appear to be that bad. But once managers began to see the claims, they realized that with a lot of the houses, the water had surged through the lower floor of the house and then receded, causing serious internal damage that was not visible externally.