By Brian Platt
Director, Office of Innovation
Jersey City, N.J.
Improving transparency, accountability, and data-driven decision-making has been a priority for Jersey City, NJ from the day Mayor Steve Fulop first assumed office in July 2013. One of the first tasks for his administration was to build a mechanism to publicize information about the city and provide better access to information. The term “dashboard” had been thrown around, but not many people in Jersey City knew what this meant or had even seen one before.
At the time I was an aide to Mayor Fulop, and this was one of my first projects. I assumed this would be an easy task – I would meet with departments and agencies, ask for data, upload it to a data portal, and simply move on to the next project.
However, nothing ever proceeds as planned in government, and instead my requests for data were met with shrugs, frowns, and responses such as “what data?” The small amount of data actually available was mostly hidden in stacks of notecards or in marble notebooks reminiscent of middle school journals. If there was a way to start from a place farther behind than “starting from nothing,” that was exactly where we were. But it didn’t stop us from continuing to strive towards our goal.
From Notebooks to a Data Portal
We decided to start slow and small. Jersey City at the time had 17 departments and agencies, each with very unique daily operations and activities. While each of the 17 “future datasets” would yield different end products, the approach was straightforward:
- Build the value, relevance, and usefulness of data in each department.
- Identify owners within each department and agency to champion data gathering.
- Collaboratively develop lists of data that make sense for each department and agency to record.
- Build customized Excel template files for departments and agencies to record that data.
- Create processes to regularly update and transfer data to a central location.
The initial end products were basic and simple: Excel files manually populated with customized data, sent directly to me either through email or a shared folder (monthly or weekly depending on the department). I would combine the data into a single Excel file for each department or agency labeled “Dashboard Files.” I would then load these Dashboard Files directly onto a simple page on our municipal website, that became the first Jersey City Data Portal.
This initial iteration – the first of its kind in the state of New Jersey – launched one year ago with the raw data Excel files, some relevant PDFs of other information often requested by the public, and some basic maps (created using Google Maps). It launched with no additional cost to the city or taxpayers, using currently existing platforms and free tools. We didn’t hire any coders or programmers, and we didn’t purchase any new software.
The initial datasets did not capture infinitely granular data. Some information was missing. Some datasets were more useful than others. Some data just wasn’t available or reasonably collected using manual Excel processes. However, the key was that Jersey City had finally started moving forward. For us, it was better to have something done that provided some level of improvement and impact instead of waiting for everything to be perfect, which would mean the task would never be completed at all.
I will be the first to admit that our Data Portal wasn’t and isn’t perfect, but that is what makes it so special. It is a work in progress requiring continuous modifications and updates. It will continue to grow and develop over time. As imperfect as the first iteration was, we received tremendous positive feedback and started to use this information to better understand how we operate as a city – and more importantly to make plans for improvement.
Developing a Second-Generation Data Portal
Based on the feedback on the first Data Portal, we began plans for the next logical iteration – a more powerful version with features to make the data more accessible and usable. We started by carefully reviewing the feedback we had gotten from end users on the existing data releases and outlining the features we desired in a new portal.
While we continued to build out the quantity and quality of data in the first generation data portal, we issued an RFP to get a better sense of our options. We were looking for something reasonably priced but also something that worked out of the box and would require minimal modifications and development on our end (given that we don’t have a lot of experienced coders and programmers on staff). The responses we received didn’t meet these two primary needs, which led us to reach out to our local tech community for help. We were soon connected with a new company, Ontodia, that provided hands-on support and development to help us build the system and did so at an incredibly reasonable price without sacrificing much in regard to the actual software usability and flexibility.
We are thrilled to be taking the next step by releasing this new Data Portal that utilizes more powerful software to make the raw data more accessible and also to integrate new mapping, visualization, and analysis tools directly into the portal. This new software will allow both public and internal users to absorb key information much faster: instead of users having to spend hours creating pivot tables in Excel, the new data portal comes with already digested visualizations of prioritized data and information.
While Jersey City took an important proactive step by beginning to make our data public a year ago, this new release makes this data more meaningful and relevant to the public, further enhancing information dissemination. Our mission is to make Jersey City more transparent by providing access to data and information on our resources, operations, and activities. We strive to provide a platform that supports data-based decision making, promotes public use of data, and strengthens citizen engagement in the democratic process.
We live in a world that craves instant access to information, data, and data analysis on everything around us, an expectation that especially includes government entities. We as government officials cannot afford to wait any longer to begin making our data and information as accessible and public as possible. Our story shows that even a city starting with no data infrastructure or resources can create enormous value through small, low-cost steps.
Platt is the Director of the Office of Innovation for Jersey City, N.J. This article was originally published on the Harvard Ash Center’s Data-Smart City Solutions website. It is made available here with permissions of the author and publisher. Headshot for Platt by photographer Greg Pallante.