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Pennsylvania Announces Open Data Portal

An executive order will breathe new life into the commonwealth's civic tech push.

Pennsylvania is renewing its commitment to transparency.

On April 18, Gov. Tom Wolf, who assumed office in January, signed an executive order to create an open data portal. The new portal is mandated to contain downloadable, machine-readable data, a feature not offered by the state’s existing transparency site called PennWATCH. The state Office of Administration is also mandated to help agencies find their most valuable data sets.

“One of our most valuable and underutilized resources in state government is data,” Wolf said in a press release. “Our goal is to make data available in order to engage citizens, create economic opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs, and develop innovative policy solutions that improve program delivery and streamline operations.”

The commonwealth’s data portal efforts are to be led by Julie Snyder, director of the Office of Data and Digital Technology at the Office of Administration. By working closely with the state’s agencies, civic hacker community, universities and cities, she will identify which data sets are most useful to be unlocked first, said Sharon Minnich, secretary of the Office of Administration.

“We have our governance structure in place, we are working to create an advisory board right now, so we’ve been working with all the agencies’ CIOs, as well as chief counsel offices to establish enterprise standards and enterprise MOU around data sharing,” Minnich said. “Now through mid-August, we’re looking to work with the agencies to bring up the first data sets that we plan to publish in the mid-August time frame. They will align initially with the governor’s goals, and they are around job creation, workforce development, training, education, energy efficiency, infrastructure, human resources, public safety.”

To develop its plan, Minnich said, Pennsylvania not only looked around the nation to spot best practices, but also assessed plans closer to home, asking Pittsburgh for advice.

“There’s a lot of open data out there that doesn’t necessarily get downloaded, so we want to make sure we put out the most valuable information,” she said. “In speaking to the universities, there really were a broad spectrum of interests. It’s going to depend on what the use cases would be for those data sets we would publish.”

The state’s relationship with the civic hacking community is a work in progress, she said, but added that one of the state’s long-term goals is to use this data in conjunction with hackathons or to partner with cities that have a more mature data sets in the governor’s key initiative areas.

According to the U.S. States Open Data Census, Pennsylvania scores 39 percent for its open data efforts, below the national average of 48.26 percent. Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and New York are outliers, with scores of 84, 78 and 74 percent, respectively, as most of the nation’s states score grades of F in many categories.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.