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Which state governments are best at fostering data innovation?

This article appears in the issue November/December 2017, [Volume 26, Issue 9]
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Laurance Stuntz, director of the Massachusetts eHealth Institute, part of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, gave a concrete example of fostering a data science community. In public/private partnerships, the institute has invested in two digital health accelerators. Those sites hold monthly collaboration and information sharing sessions. “We are trying to create a community of like-minded people working on interesting problems that we think will benefit one of our biggest cost drivers in the state and one of the biggest employers in the state—healthcare,” he said. “Creating a community of practice and the networks that come out of those monthly meetups is important to us.”

Other than its natural advantages involving tech companies and universities, Massachusetts has a long history of public/private collaboration that helped it earn the No. 1 spot in this ranking. “I think that comes from the academic influence here in Massachusetts,” Stuntz said. “As part of their ethos, universities promote openness and sharing of information. People build on each other’s work. We have recognized that the exchange of data floats all boats here in Massachusetts. We see it as a key part of our economic development strategy to open up data and allow access to data.” He added that bringing stakeholders from the private sector, academia and government together in a neutral place is the core of the success.

Cultural expectation

The state of Washington, which ranked No. 2 on the list, has a data-driven government, and that reflects a culture that permeates local government and the business community, according to Will Saunders, senior program manager for open data for the state. “When people are trying to persuade the city council or legislature of something, I think we have a cultural expectation that there be data to support any request or assertion,” he said.

The state scored high for having all its legislative data available in machine-readable format. “We also have one of the strongest public record laws,” Saunders added. “If you are not publishing it on your own terms, citizens will ask you for it and you will have to collect it.”

Although Washington has a lot of advantages, such as a rich labor pool, big companies like Amazon and Microsoft and a large research university, Saunders pointed out that smaller or more rural states could help build a data-driven culture by focusing on open data. “One of the great things about open data is that it is data you can talk about and anybody can work on it,” he said. “Some of the best can openers I have found for government data are students. Just about every state in the union has students with skills and interest.”

The Center for Data Innovation’s Castro agreed. Even states that scored the lowest in this ranking recognize they can’t ignore the issues. “If your excuse is that it is too hard, what are you telling your citizens—that you are not going to be doing anything in this space? That is not a viable answer for states looking for a solution,” he said. “At every level, there is something you can do, even if it is just an internal assessment, creating a strategy and setting a goal of what you want to achieve. That is a starting point. That can be an impetus for the change that is needed.”

Castro believes the metrics help because states need a scorecard to benchmark themselves against. “Every state has to work hard to share their best practices. This type of learning is delayed for so long because these ideas aren’t getting shared,” he said. “It is important for everyone in state government to document what they are doing and the impact they see and share it with others; otherwise that type of change doesn’t happen.”

The full report can be found here: datainnovation.org/2017/07/the-best-states-for-data-innovation.

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