Summit Kicks Off Open Data Movement in NJ

Rebecca Williams of the Sunlight Foundation and Mark Head of Accela at Open Data NJ.

Rebecca Williams of the Sunlight Foundation and Mark Head of Accela at Open Data NJ.


New Jersey got a B from the Sunlight Foundation when it graded state legislatures on how well they disclose their public data. That’s lower than neighboring states New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, which all scored A’s, but higher than Delaware which earned a C. Rebecca Williams, a policy analyst from the Sunlight Foundation, reported on New Jersey’s B grade during the first panel of Open Data NJ, a one-day summit on May 15 sponsored by the NJ News Commons and Hack Jersey.

But that was at the beginning of the day. By 5 p.m., after dozens of presentations by leaders in the field of open data, 25 people put their names and emails down on a list to lead the movement for great data transparency. Over the course of the day, about 125 people attended the summit. They were a diverse crowd, including municipal clerks, journalists and hackers.

In addition to Williams, national leaders attending the conference included Waldo Jaquith of the U.S. Open Data Institute and Mark Headd of Accela Inc., who until recently served as chief data office for the City of Philadelphia. Participants learned what open data can do: map 3-1-1 calls in Newark, show what crimes happen in which neighborhoods in Philadelphia or make it possible to see weather predictions change hour to hour. Journalists learned how to use Google fusion tables to map median incomes, by county, of Asians living in New Jersey. And municipal and county officials heard from peers like Matthew Clark, tax administrator of Monmouth County, who’d taken the plunge into releasing large sets of data online.

Hack Jersey's Tom Meagher takes a selfie.

Hack Jersey’s Tom Meagher takes a selfie.

Attendees also heard from two news organizations and an activist who are willing to go to the mat when denied access to data. Paul D’Ambrosio of the Asbury Park Press briefed the crowd on Gannett v. Raritan, an epic battle under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), which has Raritan Borough on the hook for more than $600,000 in Gannett’s legal fees over the municipality’s decision to charge the Asbury Park Press $1,100 to get payroll data in electronic form back in 2009. Jennifer Borg of The Record talked about lawsuits it has filed against the office of the governor over Bridgegate, and John Paff, a libertarian and freelance open records advocate, told the audience that the state’s civil case database is actually worse since it’s been computerized than it was when you had to look up individual cases in dockets.

At the end of the day, a town hall style meeting drew suggestions from the crowd, memorialized here, for where the NJ open data movement should go next.

To see all the powerpoints from the day, check out the Center for Cooperative Media’s Slideshare page. See the full discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #OpenDataNJ. Photos by School of Communication and Media prof Steve Johnson are here. Video from the summit will be posted shortly.

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