OpenGov Voices: How the New Jersey Data Book turned public information into accessible open data

Angie McGuire, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of the author.


How much do government statistics matter to the average citizen? Quite a bit, it turns out – especially when they’re not accessible.

Witness some of the pointed comments elicited by a recent article on a bill to restore key New Jersey property tax data to the state’s website. Once easily accessible, the data on municipal property tax bills and homestead rebates disappeared from the website early in 2014, according to one report. Here are just a couple samples:

Time for taxpayers to stand up… and demand answers. Time to hold our state reps accountable for how they vote on the bill to restore this public data.

It’s a no-brainer. If you can’t have openness and transparency on property tax information, which also happens to be the central issue for the people of NJ, then little else matters. Lack of clarity and obfuscation of the facts is not just bad governance, it’s a political strategy.

Comments like these underscore the significance of empirical information for both politicians and the public – and why data are critical to government transparency and the public’s right to know. It’s also why Rutgers’ Center for Government Services decided to prioritize the online digitization of its venerable New Jersey Legislative District Data Book. is searchable by county, congressional district or legislative district for 12 indicators in 565 municipalities in New Jersey.

This past fall, we launched the online New Jersey Data Book, making it possible for anyone to search for, compare and download key data about New Jersey’s municipalities in a user-friendly format. Data that, for nearly 40 years, had been published in a hefty, spiral-bound tome found mostly in libraries, government offices and newsrooms is now available to anyone who wants it, and can be easily sorted by county, legislative or congressional districts.

Users can find current and historic data for the state’s 565 municipalities in 12 data sets covering area/density, population, poverty, crime, employment, housing, fiscal resources, government expenditures, property tax burden, voters and turnout. We’ve uploaded available data from 2010 through 2014, and are continuing to expand the database to include nearly 40 years of statistics contained in the previous print editions.

The online New Jersey Data Book offers raw and calculated data from federal, state and county government sources including the U.S. Census Bureau; the New Jersey departments of State, Labor and Workforce Development, Human Services and Community Affairs; the N.J. divisions of State Police and Taxation; and county Boards of Election, among others. Data are selected and rigorously reviewed for accuracy.

Ernest Reock Jr., former director of the Center for Government Services, compiled the first New Jersey Legislative District Data Book in 1976.

Do you want to know which municipalities spend the most per capita? Where rents are highest and probably out-of-reach for middle- and low-income families? Trends in the percentage of owner-occupied units – a possible sign of economic or social instability? Where the highest numbers of residents receive food assistance? Which towns have the highest school taxes? The Data Book allows users to find this information quickly.

While all the information we gather is public, it’s not always easy to access. We’ve had to switch from state sources to federal ones for crime data, for example, because it was difficult to obtain them locally. This creates a time lag that prevents the public from getting critical statistics related to public safety.

Since its launch, the media and other audiences have received the online New Jersey Data Book enthusiastically. This fall, we introduced the site to the Sunlight Foundation and members of the New Jersey media at a New Jersey News Commons event, demonstrated it to state officials in Trenton and municipal leaders at the New Jersey League of Municipalities conference. We’ve also received inquiries from other states interested in creating a similar database.

The positive response has reinforced our commitment to making the data widely available. Public information isn’t truly “public” unless the public can access it.

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