Barbara Cohn

Chief Data Officer, New York

by / March 23, 2016

 View Barbara Cohn's profile

New York’s first chief data officer isn’t releasing data just for the sake of it.

“We want to change the conversation from quantity to quality,” said Barbara Cohn, who started working for the state in 2012 and quickly turned around impressive accomplishments, including a much-lauded Open Data Handbook and the OpenNY portal. Cohn credited executive sponsorship from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a great team with allowing work on the state’s open data efforts to move along so quickly.

Success is also attributed to the Quality by Design approach that Cohn enlisted — focusing not only on the raw data, but also ensuring that the public can understand it. Every data set on OpenNY comes with information to give it context: data dictionaries, an overview document that provides a narrative about the data and its source, and the metadata.

“It’s simply not enough to just publish the raw data,” said Cohn, later adding, “We firmly believe that by maximizing the understanding, we’re going to maximize the utility and the value of that data.”

As of January, OpenNY features 1,339 data sets — a more than fivefold increase from its launch of 244. The site has been accessed from 200 countries and territories, as well as all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Quarterly reports detail updates to the portal, while providing insight into the types of data available. Getting to this point required building relationships with state agencies.

Under the executive order signed in March 2013, each agency had to appoint a data coordinator, and Cohn said constant communication has been key to working with all of the different business lines.

“It’s their data and IT facilitates it,” she said, “but we want to ensure the data owners are vested in it.” And when they see their information on the portal, it becomes apparent that open data is a gateway to data discovery, standardization and quality, as well as interoperability, information sharing and analytics. “Data is basically the new infrastructure for the 21st century.”

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Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.