State Government Needs Open Data Investment

by Janet Harris ([email protected]) 103 views 

In the ongoing conversation about the workforce dilemma in Arkansas, one thing policy leaders and thought leaders tend to agree upon is that we do not have enough data to understand why the labor force is shrinking or what we can do to bridge the workforce skills gap Arkansas is currently experiencing.

Yet that data does exist. It exists through information collected by numerous government organizations charged with educating and engaging our workforce, information that might provide more insightful policy analysis in the workforce dilemma – if only state government and business leaders had access to open data.

For example, the Department of Workforce Services keeps data sets on labor market information and the numbers of unemployed Arkansans. The agency also collects job seeker demographics and data on skills of the unemployed. The Arkansas Community Colleges organization keeps data on workforce training programs offered by their member institutions, as well as information on partnerships with the business community that help train students for jobs after graduation. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission collects information about training and educational needs of the business community.

Somewhere inside all of this data may be answers to policy questions plaguing workforce development in the 21st century. The problem is that these data sets all have something in common: They are not readily accessible and not connected in any meaningful way.

The problem is that most state government organizations are data silos. Individual agencies are responsible for collecting and maintaining their own data, but lack the resources or authority to share that data with other agencies and outside groups that share their mission.

One solution to consider is an open data initiative. States like Maryland and Oklahoma are leading the way in open data projects by requiring their agencies to put public information online in a standardized, machine-readable format. These open data projects are organized as portals for public information, where raw data and statistics are available for anyone – not just government officials – to download and analyze.

While government should continue responsible stewardship of the data it collects and owns, the next logical step is to share that data with the community, and the reason is simple: The agency collecting the data is not necessarily the agency with the expertise to develop applications or analyses that consumers need, particularly in cases like the workforce dilemma, where industry needs are evolving faster than bureaucracy can respond.

For another example, consider the recent decision by Yelp to include government restaurant inspection scores in its popular restaurant rating app. While consumers probably wouldn’t go to a government site to check out inspection data before dining, that same information would be easily accessible within Yelp’s application – provided government made that data available in a machine-readable format, which Arkansas currently does not.

While Arkansas has made strides in data transparency with regards to government spending, there is no executive requirement for open data in other policy areas, and few resources are available for agency leaders to undertake an open data project on their own.

There are good reasons why public managers shouldn’t go it alone. Executing an open data plan requires collaboration and careful planning. Records containing sensitive information otherwise not subject to public disclosure must be exempt. Thoughtful consideration must be given to the value and integrity of information available through an open data portal, meaning agencies may have to make investments to upgrade software programs or make improvements to data collection procedures.

Despite the challenge, open data allows research institutions, industries, application entrepreneurs and even individuals themselves to collaborate on decision-making about policy issues. In addition to the workforce dilemma, consider the possibility of examining readily available data on school performance against geographic data on public health. What might those data sets show? We currently do not know the answer because again, most of these data sets are not easily accessible.

Perhaps a policy issue like the workforce dilemma – one that is so critical to the well-being and future of our state – is fertile ground for an open data pilot project. Bringing together individuals and organizations to discuss the concept of open data and to view workforce data through a new lens could spur action at the state level to consider an investment in a long-term open data strategy for state government.

It will take a concerted effort among state leaders to realize such a vision, and as owners of the valuable asset that is government information, it will be up to them to take the first step.