Why Data Guidelines Matter in Iowa

October 03, 2019 by Melissa Crowe

Why Data Guidelines Matter in Iowa

Photo credit: David Wilson/Flickr

Scott Vander Hart had all the support for running Iowa’s statewide data program.

Laws, such as the Taxpayer Transparency Act and the Accountable Government Act, have been on the books for years requiring information to be collected, shared, and used to measure program outcomes and their associated costs.

Vander Hart’s mission focused on how to make that data a trusted and valued resource.

“We want to focus on delivering high-quality data assets,” Vander Hart said. “Ultimately, we want to make sure that the data is a trusted and valued resource to citizens, legislators, government officials, businesses, and researchers.”

Vander Hart recently shared his experience running a statewide data program during the Socrata Performance Community of Practice, a bi-monthly online meetup of thought leaders and data experts. Previous hosts included city of Chattanooga, Tenn., and the city of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Iowa implemented its first open data portal in 2011, which was upgraded to the Socrata Open Data Portal in 2014 to make it easy for its residents to find, access, and use the state's data. Further strides were made in early 2015 when Iowa implemented the Socrata Open Checkbook™, which provides Iowa residents access to more than 10.5 million financial transactions.

Earlier this year, the state launched Socrata Connected Government Cloud for its internal data sharing program. The state is beginning to use it to measure performance, present information through dashboards and stories, and engage the public in more meaningful ways.

“If they see value in data helping them do their jobs … they tend to use it,” Vander Hart said.

Vander Hart has an exceptional approach to making data easy. He developed the state’s data guidelines and playbooks, which are instrumental to its data strategy. The approach was aimed at creating assets to help people carry out their work.

“These guidance documents are just that, they’re not rules, they’re not legislation,” he said. “Agencies tend to practice it because they find it useful.”

The guidelines cover:

  • Data portal governance: The procedures, methods, and resources related to planning and publishing data assets, creating visualizations, measures, and stories.
  • Data identification and prioritization: Identifies and prioritizes data in order to produce a reasonable and workable plan to create a comprehensive catalog for data assets.
  • Information access: Provides guidance related to information security associated with the data portal, defines confidential data and unintentional disclosure, and outlines possible safeguards agencies consider when publishing and determining access to data.
  • Data structure and format: Considerations when organizing data for purposes of creating a dataset. Ensures success importing the data.
  • Metadata: Ensures that agencies publish data with complete metadata in a consistent manner.
  • Dataset quality check: Includes highlights for a few actionable items data publishers can use to examine their data before publishing or updating a dataset.

The playbooks were created to help employees implement and use the functionality of the state’s data system, Socrata Connected Government Cloud. The playbooks cover measuring timeliness and efficiency, obtaining primary points for geographic regions, defining fiscal years, and selecting the right charts. They outline ways to use administrative data to measure goals, and how variables and data transforms can be incorporated into datasets to support that measurement and reporting.

“We don’t have any agencies necessarily that have a single individual who this is their sole responsibility,” Vander Hart said. “… A lot of my work with agencies is really focused in on what needs to be in place to provide a quality asset.”

His work hasn’t been without challenges, though. With 54 agencies and 136 user accounts across the state, turnover, for example, can be a hurdle.

“As new people come on, you have to educate them and help them understand how the process works and the tools that are available to them,” Vander Hart said.

Nonetheless, the state’s data program is growing — in use and in value.

“We want to focus in on datasets that have high impact and low difficulty to start with,” Vander Hart said. “One of our driving legislations is detailed with giving performance outcome information, so obviously, the more we can do in terms of helping measure against any strategic initiatives helps tell our story from an agency perspective on how we’re meeting our mission.”

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