Understanding State Data

A guide for civic technologists

City <> State

Cities offer a much higher degree of service than you get from other kinds of governments, and every resident of the city is a customer too.  That's not so much the case with states. 
Every city resident gets their garbage collected by the city; the only places the state collects garbage are in parks and prisons.
The State's legal authority traditionally starts with health, safety and welfare, so our operations include courts, hospitals, public health, social services, natural resources and transportation.
Counties share characteristics and responsibilities with both cities and the state.

Cities do:

  • Public Transportation
  • Utilities
  • Police
  • Culture

Counties do:

  • Planning & Land use
  • Courts and justice
  • Safety net

States do:

  • Education
  • Human services
  • Natural resources
  • Highways

follow the money

State Open Data

screenshot of data.wa.gov
screenshot of Geo.wa.gov
screenshot of fiscal.wa.gov

federated - with a capital "F"

Washington state government is a "federated" environment.  Central authority is limited - "shared services" rather than "mandate".  So in addition to the state open data portals, there are also lots of ...

Agency Open Data sites

screen shot of WSDOT data page
screenshot of K-12 data portal
screenshot of FIT tool

Underappreciated:  Access Washington federated search

How government is organized

Bureaucracy in a nutshell - the (rough) schema of government in WA


  • Functional "Domains"
  • Operations and Services
  • Boards and Commissions
  • Separately Elected

Functional "Domains"

Functional groups - aka "Domains"; these agencies work on similar stuff and tend to have similar structures
  • General Government
  • Human Services
  • Natural Resources
  • Transportation
  • Education
From the Uniform Chart of Accounts

Boards and Commissions

Boards and Commissions are usually created to keep an eye on a particular topic, industry or difficult issue.  They are usually smallish organizations composed of advocates and experts, and they tend to be good analysts and consumers of data. If you're exploring a new area of government, try looking at theses guys first.

Operations And Services

The bigger agencies you have probably heard of are the ones that provide services or handle a lot of transactional work.  They usually have either "Department" or "Services" in their name.
  • Department of Licensing
  • Department of Transportation
  • Consolidated Technology Services

Budget Requests

Most meaningful state projects begin with budget requests. These are the wish lists and pain points of agencies.
Looking for documentation on a problem faced by government?  Check here.

How to work with Government

"State government is actually a very agile organization -- it's just that each sprint is 2 years long."  (unnnamed former official)

Things to remember

  • No agency is ever funded to do stuff because it's cool -- so our data tends to be awkward and customized
  • Look for second-chance projects -- ideas that didn't get funded but were well documented.
  • Olympia is a long way from Seattle.  Transportation is a significant barrier. 
  • Students are can openers.  Education is a paramount purpose of government, and a good reason to share or stretch.
  • Plan to check in a year after the project is done - that's when you cement a good experience.

Recent Projects

Privacy Legislation

This is the year of privacy in Olympia.  Multiple bills under consideration.
The big bill is 5376 - the Washington Privacy Act

Data Equity for Main Street

An open curriculum for teaching open data in an open forum at a public library.  Joint venture with the CA State Library.  https://data-equity.org

Broadband Community Assessment

A DemocracyLab project to help communities document broadband assets and gaps

Open data Literacy

A collaborative program with the iSchool at UW to study and understand open data.
Students research open data problems and opportunities in WA state agencies, do capstones, internships and proposals for improvement.
OCIO-Will Saunders
Will Saunders - Open Data Guy, Office of Privacy & Data Protection, Office of the CIO