Open Data NJ Summit: Running With the Nerds

June 2, 2014

Around 4:30 pm on May 15, as we were nearing the end of our Open Data NJ Summit at Montclair State, I was leading an animated “town hall” discussion about how to focus the considerable energy in the room, when my belt fell off.

Debbie Galant of the Center for Cooperative Media

Embarrassing, sure. But it wasn’t holding anything up, and the conversation was going gangbusters. I grabbed the belt from the floor, dropped it on a desk at the front of the 200-person lecture hall, and continued directing conversational traffic. By 5 p.m. there were still more than 50 people in the room, all bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. An hour later, an entourage of about 15 people who just couldn’t get enough of open data despite a whole day of it moved to a dive down the road to continue the conversation over beer and hamburgers.

Democracy is kind of an abstract concept, too, but not nearly as abstract as the concept of open data. It is hard to imagine Patrick Henry standing before the House of  Burgesses in Richmond brandishing a PDF of a town budget and shouting, “Give me Excel spreadsheets or give me death.” And he certainly didn’t even have to compete for attention, in those days, with distractions like hero cats and Kate Middleton’s bare bottom.

What had happened in that last hour of that day was the data nerd equivalent of the Continental Congress. A movement was being born.

Open data is a movement that demands that governments, which collect lots and lots of data, give it freely and usefully to all people who know how to parse it.

That would mean, for example, when your town does a revaluation, you wouldn’t have to call up everybody you know and ask them whether their property assessment went up or down — as I did last time my town did a reval. It would mean that you could go to your town’s website, download all of that data into a spreadsheet, and create a map that showed, lot by lot, who was going to pay more in property tax and who was going to pay less.

Or better yet, wouldn’t it be nice if you could go to your town’s website, and the interactive map was already waiting for you?

It would mean that if you really knew how to dive into your town’s budget,  find the winners and losers, calculate the impact on tax rates, you would get it — not as a printed document, which would require you to try to “scrape” or re-type the data into a spreadsheet, but as an actual spreadsheet.

Photo by John Paff, chair of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project

Or, if you wanted to search records in the Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse, as open records advocate John Paff often does, you wouldn’t have to take your own laptop to the courthouse in Mays Landing, and manually copy data from the courthouse computers to your own.

But free, abundant, accessible data wouldn’t just eliminate inconvenience, or make it easier for reporters to discover when governments misallocate Sandy grant money,  it would unleash the potential of data to improve our lives — allowing civic hackers to map trees in a city and let people waiting in city bus stops know when their buses will arrive.

By the way, it’s important to note that “open data” is not synonymous with “big data” or the data broker industry, which is collecting a scary amount of data on private citizens, for corporate interests. Here’s a Venn diagram explaining the differences.

Not that our movement — making public data in New Jersey transparent and accessible — will all be easy. Governments, particularly many of the small municipalities in New Jersey, often lack data or computer expertise.

But we already have a site that will become a repository for data sets in the state and we’re roughing out plans to do a data census to see how well the state’s 565 municipalities and 21 counties are doing at releasing data. And Sustainable Jersey, a non-profit that incentivizes municipalities for being greener and smarter, is creating a task force that will make open data one of its goals.

Nerdy, maybe. But the open data movement in New Jersey has started, and is gathering strength.

Debbie Galant is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State. Before starting at Montclair State in 2012, Debbie ran Bartistanet, one of the first hyperlocal only sites in the country, which she founded in 2004. She  also wrote the Jersey column for The New York Times between 1998 and 2003 and has penned three novels, all published by St. Martin’s Press.