In case you missed it, 14-20 March 2021 was Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open and transparent government and citizen engagement in government decision-making. In 2020, Sunshine Week fell during the first week of what would become a long year (and counting) of quarantines, closures, face masks, and virtual-only visits with friends, family, and colleagues.
While many of us were googling recipes for homemade hand sanitizer and figuring out our Plan B for scarce toilet paper, Virginia’s Office of the Chief Data Officer (OCDO) expanded the Framework for Addiction Analysis and Community Transformation (FAACT) platform in a matter of days to guide leaders in combating COVID-19 through a state-wide lens of data, promoting data-driven decisions. Beginning in April, the almost real-time data and analytics delivered to Governor Ralph Northam and his team drove the Commonwealth’s ability to ask for resources where they were needed and order enough PPE.
Often, data that is collected and used to facilitate government decision-making can contain personal or otherwise privacy protected data, and therefore it must remain confidential and secure. However, many datasets are still valuable even when that type of restricted data is removed. And that is the type of data that can be made available for public use; citizens, journalists, educators, students, community activists, and many others can benefit from access to large datasets to make decisions, answer questions or solve problems.
Starting in April of 2020, the Library and the CDO’s office worked together to fast-track the implementation of the Socrata platform and, by the end of June, launched the new Virginia Open Data Portal (VODP). We launched with 14 datasets managed by colleagues at the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). Today, VDH has made nearly 30 datasets related to Virginia’s fight against COVID-19 publicly available. Together, in less than a year, these COVID-19 Response datasets have been viewed over 500,000 times.
Library of Virginia datasets are also available on the VODP. By adding data, such as indexing to the Virginia Untold collections, the Library is opening up large datasets for use by researchers, students, educators, and others with an interest in analyzing Virginia’s past. While the Library has offered these datasets for several years, having them on the VODP facilitates analysis in one platform.
Digital humanities scholars frequently use large datasets to create visual and computational analyses that may help them understand our past in new or potentially clearer ways. Sometimes, it’s just interesting to take a high-level view of data.
This pie chart (above) uses data from the Indentures of Apprenticeships, 1726-1893 and shows the breakdown of trades/occupations for which free Black individuals were assigned apprenticeships. Note that when this dataset was compiled, the language used for the trade came directly from the document. Terms to describe occupations in farming varied, and that makes analysis a little messy. As this is a fairly new use of our data, we will be seeking feedback from users (including ourselves, it seems!) on how to make our data “cleaner,” consistent, and more usable as an aggregate.
This visualization (below), using the Free Negro Registers, 1783-1865, (as they were titled at the time of creation) shows the number of free individuals in each locality who were required by law to register with the local circuit court. This pie chart shows only the top 10 localities. The data is limited in that it does not include lists from all localities over all years; however, as the NHPRC-funded Virginia Untold project moves forward, we will be adding additional names to the lists of registered free people. The more data we have, the better our ability to visualize.
Other open data partnerships are being developed with a number of state agencies seeking to make their data more accessible to the public. Data sharing is not new to Virginia state agencies, but the VODP is a great way to facilitate data sharing for many agencies that do not have that capacity and to pull all the different datasets from agencies together. Even better, the VODP allows the public to search, download, and visualize data in interesting ways. We at the Library are excited to engage the public, staff in local and state government, and our colleagues in public libraries across the state to make open government data an accessible and understandable resource for analyzing and answering important questions to help us make better decisions and to look at old problems in new ways.