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NYC Chief Analytics Officer Reflects on the City’s Data Work

In the wake of the NYC Open Data Help Desk reaching the major data milestone of 10,000 inquiries since its inception, Chief Analytics Officer Martha Norrick shared her thoughts on the progress and what’s next.

Aerial view of city in cyan over black background with grid represents data
To mark the 10,000th inquiry received by the NYC Open Data Help Desk, NYC Chief Analytics Officer Martha Norrick reflected on the city’s progress in expanding data literacy and shared what is to come.

New York City recently announced the start of an initiative to create a citywide data governance program, a topic which has been gaining ground for local government agencies. For NYC, this announcement followed over a decade of open data work.

Norrick said that the 10,000 inquiries have touched on a variety of topics, including questions about existing data sets and requests for new data sets to be made available.

One new data set the city will be making available soon is related to all the city’s apiaries that are known to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Another forthcoming data set is from the Department of Environmental Protection about the quantities of digested sludge moving through the city’s wastewater treatment plants every day.

“So basically, if you think that the data should be on the open data site, you can ask for it through the help desk,” she explained, adding that the help desk replaced the previous method of inquiring about city data, which was primarily done through email.

The help desk was launched in 2017 with the 10,000th inquiry received in August 2023.

The help desk has also served as a point through which other governments — both local and international — have connected with the city to discuss open data efforts. This ranges from Hennepin County, Minn., (Norrick’s hometown), to South Korea.

This allows the city to share lessons learned, including the importance of having strong governance processes in place, standardized data dictionaries, and data coordinators across different city agencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred an increase in usership of the city’s open data portal. Norrick’s hope is that people who came to the platform for pandemic-related data were able to find other ways to use the other data sets available to them to discover more about their city and government operations.

The strategy to improve data literacy among constituents goes beyond the help desk, though. Through the NYC Open Data Ambassador (ODA) program, which was launched in 2019, the Office of Data Analytics and NYC’s Open Data Team collaborate with a local civic tech group called BetaNYC to educate participants so that they can better train others on how to interpret and interact with open data.

Senior Director of Communications for the NYC Office of Technology and Innovation Ray Legendre detailed in an email that the third cohort of volunteer ambassadors recently finished their training and will be teaching classes starting in 2024. There were 25 education classes held under this program hosted by various organizations in 2022. The next virtual class this year is scheduled for Sept. 8.

Norrick said that participants in this program include city employees, librarians and civic enthusiasts — and it is open for anyone to participate.

The goal is to train as many ambassadors as possible, she said, in order to scale the program so that the city can offer as many training opportunities as are necessary so all those who want to take them are able to do so.

The city uses a curriculum designed to better train the trainers, as well as feedback from participants to determine what will be included in the trainings. And, notably, Norrick said that the inquiries received through the help desk also really help inform the curriculum.

And with the data governance program that the city has recently begun work to establish, Norrick said that the principles the city is looking to put in place — such as establishing metadata standards, data documentation standards, and data stewards — will be applicable to the work of city data internally and open data at large.

“I think all of these efforts sort of inform each other,” said Norrick. “The data that the city generates and is shared on [NYC] Open Data is also data that folks who work for the city use every day in their jobs trying to make New York City government work better for New Yorkers.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.