New dataset tracks content, disposition of OPRA requests in New Jersey

 State freedom of information laws are vital mechanisms for providing public access to government records. These laws support civic engagement through the implementation of public policy transparency at the state level, not unlike their federal counterpart, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

New Jersey state law facilitates public access to government records under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Codified at N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq., OPRA applies to state, county and local public authorities but exempts the judicial and legislative branches from its disclosure requirements. Since OPRA took effect in 2002, it has been difficult to track the full extent of law’s impact across New Jersey’s 21 counties, 565 municipalities, and numerous state agencies, school districts and independent authorities, all of which must individually respond to requests under the law.

Gavin Rozzi, Research Computing Specialist with the Rutgers Urban & Civic Informatics Lab at the Bloustein School has published “ The First Statewide, Open Access Dataset Tracking Public Records in New Jersey” in Data in Brief (Available online 2 September 2020, in press). To the best of the author’s knowledge, no official source has compiled detailed metadata tracking the content and disposition of OPRA requests at the state, regional and municipal levels within New Jersey using individual requests; in addition, authorities rarely disclose proactively their responses to requests they receive, necessitating further data collection to support research into the impacts of this law.

This article presents the OPRA machine dataset: data containing detailed metadata on public records requests submitted to state and local public authorities in New Jersey since October 2017, collected through the implementation of information and communication technologies (ICT) to facilitate the freedom of information request process.

The data was collected using an open-source web interface that allowed users to submit an OPRA request to public authorities, with responses stored in a database and made available via the internet. After their request received a response, users were asked to answer a single survey question describing the status of their request, with their answer used to classify the request. Descriptive statistics, tables and frequencies were produced for the dataset and are included in this article.

These data will assist state policymakers and other interested parties with assessing trends in OPRA requests across multiple types of public authorities and geographic regions by informing more efficient government records management procedures, fostering civic engagement by increasing government transparency, and informing the development of possible reforms to the OPRA law by showing trends in requests and responses that can be used to evaluate the law’s implementation throughout the state.