States Play Catch-Up on Open Data

Complexity has slowed statewide efforts, but CIOs are launching new initiatives.

by , / September 30, 2014
Steve Towns

Open data-powered innovation programs are well established in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, but state governments have been slower to join the movement. The size and structure of state governments — along with limited direct contact with citizens — have made it harder for them to engage civic hacker communities.

But state-level open data initiatives and civic hackathons have sprouted in some locations, and more appear to be on the way. Data-oriented topics were front-and-center at the NASCIO Annual Conference this week in Nashville, and a number of state CIOs are launching open data efforts intended to drive innovation in service delivery and spur economic development.
 
For instance, Minnesota CIO Carolyn Parnell says she’s expanded her focus on open data and innovation. Speaking on a NASCIO open data panel on Monday, Parnell said her state established an open data portal in 2011, but the information sat largely unused. “Someone had set it up so we would have a site, but it was pretty meaningless,” she said.

Growing citizen interest in big data along with her own desire to engage with civic-minded software developers prompted Parnell to jump-start data conversations in Minnesota state government. The discussions led to development of an open data strategy, which won the backing of the governor’s subcabinet on better government. Now the state is conducting an inventory of agency data assets, creating data standards and developing guidelines for data sharing.

Parnell says the open data push already is paying off, sometimes in the form of better collaboration among state agencies. For instance, Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety began sharing vehicle crash data with the state Department of Transportation, which used the information to locate the state’s most dangerous intersections and make safety improvements.

Indiana’s Paul Baltzell is another state CIO launching open data-based innovation initiatives. The state already has partnered with the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce to hold hackathons, and Baltzell now is working on a platform to conduct innovation challenges modeled on the federal government’s Challenge.gov program.

Baltzell plans to launch the new platform early next year with a joint Indiana/Texas challenge. Although details are still being formalized, the states will partner to release a handful of problems for civic hackers and companies to solve. Winning solutions will be named through an independent judging panel.

Indiana state agencies ultimately will be able to issue their own challenges through the platform, which Baltzell says will operate in conjunction with Indiana’s open data portal. He expects the activities to boost innovation and spawn new companies based on successful solutions. The state also is working on a streamlined procurement mechanism to adopt winning solutions generated by entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Here are a couple additional highlights from day two of the NASCIO conference:

Workforce Transformation — Government employment traditionally was attractive for two main reasons: It’s a secure job with great benefits. But times are changing and in response, Tennessee has embarked on one of the biggest — and arguably most ambitious — workforce transformations in state government. “We’re starting to have people come in for two years,” said Rebecca Hunter, commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Resources. “We need to transform our workforce to attract and retain people.” That transformation includes a career and leadership path for technology employees developed by the state’s human resources and IT departments. And Gov. Bill Haslam committed $2.5 million annually for a training academy for Tennessee’s IT employees — part of an effort to replace catch-all job classifications with more meaningful titles and appropriate skills. “We’re really seeing a positive impact of giving learning opportunities to employees,” Hunter said. And as people retire, a new org chart allows for the promotion of qualified employees while also serving as the foundation for the state’s IT team — one that is looking to the future and rethinking public-sector employment.

Internet of Things — “In the space of this conversation, a few more things have been added to the Internet,” said Cisco’s Chris White as a 75-minute session on the Internet of Things neared conclusion. It’s expected that there will be 30 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020. But there are a couple sensors that IT teams should make sure they don’t overlook: “Don’t discount yourself and your phone as part of the Internet of Things network,” said Bob Woolley, Utah’s chief technical architect. Thanks to sophisticated mobile technology, almost anyone is now a sensor. But citizen input and reporting only is useful if there are apps to capture it. For example, the UDOT Citizen Reporter program enlists volunteers to report via a mobile app on road conditions in areas that are lacking cameras or weather information units. The accuracy level has been 99 percent. “We’re awesome sensors,” said Woolley. By gathering sensor data and human data together, you can have a pretty powerful system, he added.

Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.