Delaware Makes Progress on Open Data, But Much Remains to be Done

Keeping the data current is an ongoing challenge, but the hope is that the state will dedicate more resources to the project.

(TNS) -- A little over a year after the governor announced a new open data initiative, and about five months since the launch of an open data portal, the chairman of the Open Data Council says she would give the effort an A or B grade for the work it has accomplished so far, but says a lot remains to be done.

"We're new to the open data game," said Rhonda Lehman, Strategic Enterprise Services Team Leader with the state Department of Technology and Information and chair of the state's Open Data Council. "This platform is constantly evolving for us."

After then-Gov. Jack Markell signed an executive order creating the Open Data Council in January 2016, the executive branch agencies identified in the order came together to begin creating a website where public information databases could be shared.

Lehman said the council reached out to other states that had open data portals. At their second meeting, they conducted a video conference with the Chief Data Officer of Connecticut to find out about that state's experiences. Council members reviewed open data portals maintained by other states, and talked to officials in some of them about their successes and pitfalls.

In April, the Department of Technology and Information and the Government Information Center procured open data portal software from Socrata, an open data platform company. GIC funded the base cost and launch for the portal.

Council members identified databases that they wanted in the initial launch of the website, and a list of other databases they could put up later. The website launched Oct. 19 and Lehman said she has been working with agencies to get databases online ever since, but more could be done if the state committed resources to the project.

"We need a dedicated person to do it," she said.

Gov. John Carney included the open data portal in his Jan. 19 Action Plan for Delaware. That plan called for reissuing the executive order to continue the work of the Open Data Council and for prioritizing the collection, publishing and maintenance of open data across all state agencies. The plan did not, however, allocate any resources.

While Carney did not respond to the question of adding resources, he did say, "The people of Delaware deserve a state government that is responsive to their needs and concerns. And that includes operating in a way that is transparent, and accountable. We will consistently look for opportunities to increase transparency in state government. It's important that the people of Delaware understand how their government works, and how they can participate and include their voice in important discussions facing our state."

Lehman said expanding the portal to other state agencies is a goal of hers. Getting all the executive branch agencies to contribute is the first step, but she said the council would like to open it to the legislative and judicial branches as well. The response from state agencies, however, has been mixed, with some enthusiastic in their support and others reluctant to participate.

Some agencies, she said, fear that the data they put out might not be accurate, or that someone looking at it might draw the wrong conclusions or take it out of context.

"That kind of stuff will absolutely happen as we post the data," she said. "But there are also success stories where people have lobbied government for change" after looking at data.

"We're looking to help agencies support their missions with open data and help them tell their stories," she said.

One state agency that has embraced open data is the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Mike Mahaffie, Director, Web and Digital Media for DNREC, said the open data portal fits with the agency's mission and is a way to help the public understand things the agency is doing to ensure good management and use of the environment.

"To the extent that we want the public to follow along with our decisions, we want to share that data with the public," he said.

The Department of Health and Social Services has also been a big proponent. Jill Fredel, Director of Communications for that agency and an Open Data Council member, said Health and Social Services touches every person's life in Delaware every day.

"From restaurant inspections to water quality, drinking water, Medicaid, child support, we know we have a lot of connections with people as a department," she said." And because we have those connections we have a lot of data."

The agency has to be careful because of privacy concerns, she said, but data released in the aggregate, which doesn't include any individual identifiers, can be beneficial to people.

"Everybody is using data and mining it, trying to find solutions to common problems or get a better understanding of the issues," she said.

The heroin epidemic is one of those issues. Fredel said that if her agency was able to post data about treatment centers, where and when the emergency treatment Naloxone is administered to overdose victims and where and when overdose deaths are occurring, someone might be able to combine the data to come up with more effective strategies to battle the problem.

"If we can pull it all together, we can view it and see if there is something we can do differently," she said.

While some of the data DHSS has put on the open data portal is a few years old, Fredel said it is still helpful in identifying trends and showing where progress is being made.

Lehman said keeping the data current is an ongoing challenge, and it is part of the reason she hopes the state will dedicate more resources to the project.

"I can slap databases up there all day, but we want to keep it fresh," she said.

For now, Lehman's priority is coming up with a timeline for getting some of the databases that have already been identified in the initial plan online. That involves working with the individual state agencies, getting the data in a workable format and getting it up. But the council also wants the public to participate by suggesting datasets.

"We need citizens to say 'Here is what I want to see,'" she said.

©2017 Middletown Transcript, Del. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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