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New Jersey Prioritizes Open Data, Codifies Chief Data Officer Position

The state's Open Data Initiative will help CDO Liz Rowe drive the development of common standards and governance across the executive branch, and develop an approach to enterprise data sharing.

On Monday, Feb. 6, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation that not only makes data transparency a requirement for all state agencies, but also codifies the chief data officer position into state law.

The new Open Data Initiative (PDF) aims to increase public awareness of and access to state agency data in order to enhance transparency and accountability, encourage public engagement, and stimulate public policy and public service innovation.

What this ultimately means is that state agency data must be published online, whether it is on the state's already-established open data portal or their respective agency websites.

The person leading the charge is Chief Data Officer Liz Rowe, who has been in the position since March of 2015, and also took on the role and responsibilities of Deputy CTO for Policy and Governance when CTO Dave Weinstein was appointed in 2016.

"I was hired by the former Chief Technology Officer Steve Emanuel, who worked with the governor’s office to create the position of CDO," Rowe told Government Technology via email. "My role’s creation was in response of the evolution and bifurcation of 'IT' into 'information' and 'technology' domains."

When Rowe was brought on board, her directive from Emanuel was to develop a strategy for defining and managing enterprise data and information across the executive branch, while he focused on enterprise infrastructure and operations.

And while much about her position remains the same, the new Open Data Initiative formalizes Rowe's role, giving her the authority to establish procedures, standards and best practices around open data and data sets by each agency; develop a dataset format standard across all agencies; and monitor and ensure compliance.

"The initiative will help us drive the development of common standards and governance across the executive branch," Rowe said. And the stability of codifying the CDO position allows for foundational work to be started that will carry over multiple administrations, impacting many initiatives, and will continue to improve outcomes for citizens, no matter who is in the CDO post.

"What changes now is that this effort has become prioritized," she said. "Over the past two years, I have had discussions with many folks at all levels of state government who agreed with what we were trying to do, but due to resource constraints were not able to work with us on the necessary groundwork."

But now they have a mandate and a timeline that they are required to meet, she said, noting that a lot of the relationship and education pieces have been done at the senior levels. "Hopefully that will help with awareness and facilitate adoption."

Another aspect of the initiative, Rowe said, is enterprise data sharing. "The statute directs me to work with the attorney general’s office to develop an approach to enable enterprise data sharing," she said, and acknowledged that the ability to share information between agencies thus far has been a challenge due to confusing regulatory requirements. "I look forward to being able to work with the AG’s office on practical controls for appropriate and secure data and information sharing to support and enable our agency’s missions."

That the CDO position is now a part of New Jersey state law is a step in the right direction, given the value data holds and the fact that the role is starting to mature and evolve in the public sector, but looking back over the last few years, Rowe says it was actually more helpful that she didn't start with a legislative mandate or executive order.

"This forced me to proactively identify and reach out to stakeholders across the state and in other states. I was able to learn from them their business problems — not their technology problems — and figure out how an appropriate data strategy would be of benefit to them and their clients’ outcomes," she said. "I’ve been able to develop relationships over the past couple of years and understand some of the real business and cultural impacts of what we’re asking them to do, insights I probably wouldn’t have gained if I’d been brought in to support a new initiative right out of the gate ... I think that what we build at this moment in time will be better for it."