State Open Data Laws and Policies

1/5/2021

states with open data laws

Introduction 

"Although open data undoubtedly builds upon the fifty-year legal tradition of the right to know about the workings of one's government, open data does more than advance government accountability. Rather, it is a distinctly twenty-first century governing practice borne out of the potential of big data to solve society's biggest problems."—Beth Simone Noveck 

States are making government data more open, accessible and available for businesses, non-profits, citizens, and government itself to use in ways that can promote economic growth, create new jobs, enable innovation, inform public policy and encourage public engagement. An increasing number of states are now operating from the presumption that non-sensitive government data should be made freely available in a way that makes it open, discoverable and usable for the public. Fewer than half the states, however, have laws that outline a specific approach and commitment to open data. 

What Is Open Data?

Government data is “open” when it is published in formats that make it available for unrestricted public use and reuse, without charge and without intellectual property or licensing restrictions. Such formats enable digital processing and follow standards that are documented, widely used and publicly available. Open data is machine-readable: data in a format that can be easily processed by a computer without human intervention. It also includes descriptive metadata—data about data—such as information that describes elements such as title, author, keywords or other characteristics of digital materials.

Why Open Data? 

State governments collect and maintain vast amounts of data. Rather than serving as a warehouse, state governments can treat data as a public asset that can be used to explore and discover patterns, correlations and insights to improve efficiency and solve problems.

Transparency and Public Access

When information is made available on the web in open data formats, it means government is more transparent and accountable to citizens. Although forty-six states have some form of an open data portal, they vary considerably in the type and amount of information they provide. The most robust of them include a wide variety of datasets, from information on salaries of public employees, to population counts and estimates, to employment and unemployment information, to name just a few.

For example, Maryland’s open data portals offer population demographics by county, trends in job growth for Marylanders, data on pollution reduction in the Chesapeake Bay, data on health trends of Marylanders and other datasets. 

Most recently, many state portals have published data sets on COVID-19 cases, tests, hospitalizations and deaths, which have been used by organizations like Johns Hopkins University to create valuable information, including the 50-state maps, charts and data that are so widely viewed and relied upon.  

Opportunities for Economic Growth and Innovation

Open data can be repurposed to do things that government cannot afford to do or may not have envisioned. The information gathered from open data can be used to generate new products, services and businesses, creating new jobs in the process. The value of open data is evidenced by its many uses; for example, companies that were built using open government data include Zillow, the Weather Channel and Garmin.

State governments also hold a vast amount of data with the potential to be used in many ways. The availability of state economic and financial data online allows businesses to study the potential benefits of relocating to a state, for example, or to solve business problems.

Colorado promotes its open data in annual public data competitions. Teams compete to use public data in creative ways to address various problems. For example, one of the award-winning solutions included the development of a platform that helps streamline water data discovery and analysis, helping real estate agents, developers, investors, appraisers, and consultants make better business decisions with publicly available water data

 

State Open Data Laws

Although many states have some form of open data portal, few are based on a sound public policy foundation. Indeed, only 17 states have laws that formally require executive branch agencies (and in some cases, local governments) to make information available in open data formats, as shown below.

states with smart open data laws map

 

State Open Data Laws

State

Citation

Arkansas

 Ark. Code § 25-4-126, Ark Code § 25-4-128 to -128

Colorado

 CRS § 24-21-116

Connecticut

 CGS § 4-67p

Florida

 Fla. Stat. § 282.0041(24), Fla. Stat. § 282.0051

Hawaii

 HRS § 27-44  to -44.2

Illinois

 20 ILCS 45/1 to 45/99

Indiana

 Ind. Code § 4-3-26 et seq., § 5-14-3.3 et seq.

Maryland

 Md. State Govt Code § 10-1501 to -1503

Massachusetts

 MGL 7D § 4A

New Hampshire

 N.H. RSA §§ 21-R:10, -R:11, -R:12, -R:13, -R:14, -R:15

New Jersey  N.J. Stat. § 52:18A-234.1 et seq.

Oregon

 ORS § 276A.350 et seq.

Texas

 Tex. Govt. Code § 2054 et seq., Tex. Govt. Code § 2060.001 et seq.

Utah

 Utah Code § 3A-1-203  

Vermont

 22 VSA § 95222 VSA § 953

Virginia  Va. Code § 2.2-203.2:4

Puerto Rico

 3 LPRA § 9897, 3 LPRA § 9898

U.S. 

44 U.S.C. § 3506(b)(6) as amended by OPEN Government Data Act, § 202(c)(1)(A)(iv)


In addition, governors have issued open data executive orders in at least four states—Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island. In the District of Columbia, a mayor’s order created an open data policy.

Features of Open Data Laws and Policies

Many state open data laws share the following kinds of provisions. For example, state laws may:

  • Create a chief data officer position.
  • Require the use of non-proprietary, open-source data or machine-readable data formats.
  • Establish or mandate that open data plans, standards or policies be established.
  • Provide for data sharing and collaboration.
  • Require data to be cataloged or inventoried.
  • Mandate online data portals or websites.
  • Establish open data councils or boards for direction and oversight.

These features are explored in more depth in the sections below.

Chief Data Officer Position

Of the 17 states with open data laws, ten create a Chief Data Officer (CDO) or equivalent position. CDOs are often charged with directing all executive branch agencies on the use and management of data. They may be directed to create a formal state data plan, including establishing a program to collect, analyze, and exchange government information from agencies, and making government information available to agencies, political subdivisions, educational institutions, researchers and the general public. Some CDOs also may establish privacy and quality policies for government information and advise and assist state agencies to make open data available.

Although most state CDO positions are established in statute, others have been created through appointment or executive order. According to the State Chief Data Officer Network, 25 states and the District of Columbia have a CDO or comparable position.

Machine-Readable, Structured and Open Data Formats

Central to making government information open and accessible is having data available in machine-readable, structured and open formats.

Indiana’s definition of machine-readable is “a format in which government data can be easily processed by a computer without human intervention while ensuring that semantic meaning is not lost.” It also defines an “open format" as “a technical format based on an underlying open standard that is: (1) not encumbered by restrictions that would impede use or reuse; and (2) maintained by a standards organization.”

Some examples of machine-readable formats include HTML, XML, CSV and JSON file formats. The data within these formats, however, must be structured in ways that allow them to be processed by a computer. Many web sites still make information available in PDF formats, which are not machine-readable without human intervention.

Open Data Plans, Standards and Policies

Although states with open data portals undoubtedly have developed plans and policies, in two states, lawmakers have specified requirements for a plan or standards.

Legislation passed in Connecticut in 2018 requires the CDO to create a State Data Plan. The plan must:

  • Establish data management and analysis standards.
  • Include specific achievable goals.
  • Make recommendations to enhance standardization and integration of data systems and data management practices.
  • Review legal issues and concerns related to data sharing.
  • Set goals for improving the open data repository.

Oregon’s CDO is required by law to establish an open data standard for state agencies publishing data on the state’s web portal. The standard must include:

  • A format that permits public notification of updates whenever possible.
  • Requirements to update publishable data as often as is necessary to preserve the integrity and usefulness of publishable data.
  • The availability of publishable data without registration or license requirements or restrictions on the use of publishable data.
  • The ability to electronically search publishable data using external information technology.
  • Expectations for inventorying, prioritizing, and publishing open data.

The Oregon CDO is also required to prepare and regularly update a technical standards manual.

California's Open Data Portal includes links to the state's Open Data PolicyOpen Data Handbook, publisher guides and other resources. 

Data Catalogs or Inventories: Prioritizing the Release of High Value Data

Several states, including Arkansas, Connecticut and New Jersey, require the CDO to oversee an inventory of state-held data. For example, in Connecticut, executive branch agencies are required to conduct an annual inventory of “high value data.” The statute specifies that “in conducting such inventory, data shall be presumed to be public data unless otherwise classified by federal or state law or regulation.”

Each agency must identify “high value data,” i.e., any data that:

  • Is critical to the operation of an executive branch agency.
  • Can increase executive branch agency accountability and responsiveness.
  • Can improve public knowledge of the executive branch agency and its operations.
  • Can further the core mission of the executive branch agency.
  • Can create economic opportunity.
  • Is frequently requested by the public.
  • Responds to a need and demand as identified by the agency through public consultation.
  • Is used to satisfy any legislative or other reporting requirements.”

Texas law encourages agencies to publish high-value data sets, which are defined as “information that can be used to increase state agency accountability and responsiveness, improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations, further the core mission of the agency, create economic opportunity, or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.”

Studies of open government data reinforce the importance of this type of measured approach, noting that simply publishing more data in open formats does not guarantee the data will be used. In Making Open Data Work in California's State Government: Lessons Learned, by the California Research Bureau, the authors state “A successful open data project is about publishing data the public can use. It is necessary to know what data you have, what data the public likely will find most useful, and how to publish that data so that privacy is protected while still maximizing its value to the public.

Similarly, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University at Albany, SUNY, in The Dynamics of Opening Government Data: A White Paper, found that “A common assumption when opening government data is that simply supplying more data freely and in more formats will lead to more use. That use will lead to value creation and, in turn, will motivate government to make the necessary changes to continue opening more data. But, we know from experience, that supplying more and more data does not necessarily produce the results we anticipated.” CTG recommends that governments:

  • Release data that are relevant to both agency performance and the public interest.
  • Invest in strategies to estimate how different stakeholders will use the data.
  • Devise data management practices that improve context in order to future-proof data resources.
  • Think about sustainability.

Open Data Councils and Boards

Several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Texas, Utah and Vermont, have a statutory council or board that provides high-level guidance and oversight for open data initiatives.

For example, Maryland’s statute creates a Council on Open Data, charged with “providing guidance and policy recommendations and recommend legislation and regulations for: procedures, standards, and other deliverables for open data, including for open data portals; promotion, advertising, and marketing of open data; and best practices for sharing open data while taking into account privacy and security concerns.” Among other duties, the council also must prepare an annual report on the activities of the Council for the previous year and any recommendations for legislation.

The Texas Legislature in 2015 established the Interagency Data Transparency Commission and directed it to study methods to structure, classify, and share data among state agencies; to collect and post data online in an open-source format that is machine-readable, exportable, and easily accessible by the public; and to standardize data and improve sharing of data across state agencies; among other data and transparency issues. The commission issued a report with its recommendations.

Subsequent legislation in 2019 enacted many of the recommendations, including designating the Texas Open Data Portal as the preferred location for all statewide public data.

Open Data Portals and Websites

In 2006, the federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act was passed, requiring federal financial assistance and expenditures to be available through a single, searchable website. Many states shortly thereafter followed the federal example, passing Taxpayer Transparency Acts and creating centralized websites with detailed information about statewide expenditures.

Taxpayer transparency sites, however, typically provide only financial and expenditure data, and not always in machine-readable formats. Open data sites differ in that they provide a broad range of information in machine-readable formats.

For example, Maryland’s open data portals offer population demographics by county, trends in job growth for Marylanders, data on pollution reduction in the Chesapeake Bay, data on health trends of Marylanders and other datasets.

California’s Open Data Portal showcases specific datasets and highlights popular, new and recent datasets.

Visitors to Oregon’s open data portal can create their own charts, graphs, calendars and maps, and save them for future viewing. They can also suggest new datasets for future inclusion on the site.

Texas' Open Data Portal includes information on permitting and licensing, social services, transportation, agriculture, education, public safety and economic and business data.

Conclusion

In recent years, state legislatures have taken a more active role to ensure that state government data is more accessible, transparent and open to innovative uses that may help transform and improve citizens’ lives.

Additional Resources

The resources below are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the positions of NCSL.

State Open Data Reports

Other Resources