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The Montgomery County Open Data Act of 2012

Today, the Montgomery County Council will vote on the Montgomery County Open Data Act of 2012; which I authored, serving as the Council’s Lead for Digital Government.  The bill received a unanimous committee recommendation and is co-sponsored by almost every member of the County Council.  

The bill will completely change how Montgomery County collects, manages and publishes data.  The bill:
  1. Establishes an open data policy for county government, with the intention of publishing a comprehensive data set for each department
  2. Requires creation of an implementation plan as a regulation that must be approved by the Council, to ensure there is no gap between the policy goal and actual implementation
  3. Mandates publishing results of public records requests submitted under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), a first for any local government


The legislation is an important step in building the information infrastructure of future innovations in service delivery and resident engagement.  We are undertaking other steps as well, some of which may be unique for local or state government.  

The new open data legislation was developed in close collaboration with County Executive Isiah Leggett.  Mr. Leggett established CountyStat and 311 systems in 2007, two foundational and challenging innovation practices for local government.  Open data was a natural next step.  As a result of his support for the legislation and participation in crafting it, our county’s open data program is not controlled or supported by just one branch of government, but rather has the support of a unified county government — legislative and executive.

To put this legislation in context, a broader open government initiative is also underway in Montgomery County, coordinated across government entities that are not legally under the aegis of the county government or subject to decisions made by the County Council.  Our school system is technically a state agency, as is our parks and planning agency and also our community college, while our Housing Opportunities Commission is a quasi federal agency.  With support from our technology committee I urged them in this direction, and now all are participating in developing a unified open government strategy.  This is possible thanks to the county’s long-standing Interagency Technology Policy Coordinating Committee, which was founded by the County Council in 19XX.  Their high-level work-plan is here.

As a result of my initial discussions about open data with the executive branch last year, the county has already published open data sets on a Socrata platform.  A new openMontgomery website will launch shortly with many high value data sets, including the entire county budget, financial information on expenditures, and more.  

The suggestion to place most of the definitions in the legislation in an “implementation plan” came, not surprisingly, from the executive branch.  As the executive branch explained the complexities in how each department would implement the open data policy, it made sense to me to let them draft a regulation that will govern how the data is collected and published for each department.  So long as the County Council has the ability to change that implementation plan regulation (which we do), I concluded that it would be better to let them take the lead in defining precisely how to proceed.  My support for this approach was particularly informed by open government advocates who pointed out to me that just rushing to put up data up for the sake of data is expensive, wasteful, and inefficient.  Proceeding deliberately and collaboratively makes more sense.

The real benefit to this method is that the County Council will soon have a plan to review that will go into greater detail than the council could have prepared as a policy, and we will be able to modify that plan.  Based on what I have learned about how challenging it can be for a department to implement open government principles, I suspect there is a real gap in the intentions of a jurisdiction’s open data law and how it is implemented.  The core question of what counts as “data” at each different department or agency is something that it would be impossible for legislation to truly define.  And how will a data set change and expand over time as the county invests more resources in the effort?  Those are the questions that really matter, and now the Council will have a say in the implementation.

My goal was simply to establish a data set for each department that would help the council as well as residents measure the work of that department and its governing policies; as well as provide data that app developers would find useful.  It is, of course, the developers who will take the data and use it to improve access to services by creating new applications.  

The second part of the legislation requires the County Government and County Council to publish the results of public record requests on the internet.  Our government is subject to the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), which provides a clear right to residents to demand information from the government.  In practice, however, this right is not effective, according to the State Integrity Investigation.  

While that investigation did not focus on Montgomery County but rather on the provisions of the statute, the Open Data Act will provide a new mechanism to ensure effective implementation in Montgomery County by posting MPIA requests on a county website, the status of the response to that request, and then the response itself.

Implementation of this standard will again be defined in a plan that will be reviewed by the Council, in order to help us avoid problems that beset the Port Authority of New York, which established a similar policy.  As far as I am aware, Montgomery County will be the first local government in the country to establish this practice.  No states have established it, nor have any Federal agencies.

When it comes to innovation and creativity, dynamism and progressivism, I want to see Montgomery County recognized among San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Boston, New York City, Seattle and similar metro areas with strong innovation economies. Not only do these areas provide global leadership in the private sector but their local governments are breaking new ground with technology and services.

Montgomery County has what it takes to compete, there is no question. We have one of America’s strongest IT and biotech sectors, we have one of the world’s most educated and highly skilled workforces.

But we can do better to position ourselves regionally, nationally, globally.  That is why I have put so much effort into my role as Council Lead for Digital Government, and I believe the Open Data Act will be an important step forward.

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Daily Journal 07/09/12: Wheaton, Digital Government, Pepco

On Monday, I met Larry Couch, chair of the Justice and Advocacy Council (JAC) of Montgomery County. The JAC is a Catholic organization that advocates for our low-income. We talked about a variety of issues, including the Working Families Income Supplement, a tax benefit that helps our low-income families by supplementing their wages. The JAC fought to create the original State Earned Income Tax Credit, which the county matches with its own local tax credit.  We talked about working together to get the county to a 1-1 match of dollars provided by the state (today we add about 75% of the amount). 

Next, Councilmember Navarro and I convened a discussion about Wheatonpublic safety issues with Chief Manger, and Mid-County Regional Services Center Director, Ana Lopez van Balen, and their teams. We reviewed progress from the Wheaton Public Safety Audit of 2004 and parameters for a new public safety initiative there. Our goal is to integrate these elements of the Wheaton Public Safety Task Forceinto the larger effort of Wheaton Revitalization. More soon.

In the afternoon, I attended a GO Committee on IT issues. As the Council lead for Digital Government, I have been working to accelerate the county’s digital strategy. I was very happy to review the substantial agenda that has been put forward by our agencies on open data, digital citizenship, data visualization, social media, mobile platforms, and other areas– and not only for county government but also MCPS, HOC, MNCPPC, and Montgomery College. These groups will be working together on a range of initiatives in these areas and residents will begin to see the results soon.

In the evening, I met with the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board. We talked about Pepco and who has accountability for ensuring that we have decent electric power here in the County. The point I stressed to the group is that I believe its time for the Governor to give us a fresh start at the PSC.  The PSCis the only entity in the state that has direct authority over Pepco.  They are an independent state agency and their members are appointed by the Governor. The Governor needs to appoint new members because these members are not getting the job done. 

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Daily Journal (June 22, 2012): Your Council on Video

Today began with continued work on our digital strategy; my new staffer, Arthi Subramanian, is working hard to assemble our thoughts into a road-map that we can publish and help guide our actions in the future.

As part of that effort, I am working to find money to televise 100% of the county council’s “worksessions.” A worksession is essentially a committee meeting and, as my colleague Valerie Ervin remarked, it is where most of the decisions are made on most of the issues that come through the county council. The exception is issues that are more controversial and are not resolved in committee, and therefore have full council debate and amendments. The share of those issues is small compared to the items that get worked out in committee and then placed on the “consent agenda.”

Unfortunately, the council does not usually have time to discuss the items on the consent agenda, so significant policy issues are passed with a vote at the council but no discussion.

For this reason, the Government Operations Committee (of which I am a member along with Valerie Ervin and chair Nancy Navarro) decided this year that we should televise 100% of the committee worksessions – to promote transparency and also create a very useful video archive of county council deliberations. Today we only take video of about half of the worksessions (they are all recorded by audio).

Another recommendation I am working on is better using a powerful video tool that we have, called Granicus, to “tag” all of the content from the council deliberations. Already, you can come to the council website and search the video by keyword—the search results will pull up parts of council meetings and worksessions that used that word.

Want to see what every council member has said in a public meeting about public safety, transportation, etc? This tool will allow you to find the answers. Pretty handy, right? The purpose of getting 100% of the worksessions is to make that keyword or tagging tool as useful as possible, and then to make it a more prominent feature of the Council website. This is one important step in improving our legislative transparency.

If you have any thoughts about how these systems can be improved, please let me know.


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Daily Journal, March 14 (Digital Gov)

Today started with an impressive briefing by leaders in the tech sector on the topic of Montgomery County and the new economy. We talked with a venture capitalist, Brad Burnham, who urged us to create urban areas where young tech workers want to live, promote community banking to increase lending for small businesses, and use our data effectively to foster new tech start-ups. These are all initiatives I am working on and excited about, so I was very encouraged by his comments.

David Lieber from Google talked about ways that we can partner with the company, particularly with Google Transit but also Maps, Apps and other areas. We’re already started with Google but need to build a more effective partnership.

Wayne Jackson, CEO of Sonatype, a cyber security firm, talked about how he moved his company here from Silicon Valley. His comments were particularly interesting as we discovered a tension between the advice of Burnham, who said that young tech workers are less interested in schools, and Jackson, who said that he located his company here precisely because the workers are more loyal and rooted in the county. Jackson said our quality school system is essential for fostering the kind of workforce that he needs to have a successful company. He targets a different workforce, essentially, that has tech skills but won’t jump ship for the next start-up quite as easily when times get tough. In truth I assume you need both layers for a robust economy and in my view MoCo doesn’t have enough of the younger types to have the right balance, but according to Mr. Jackson we don’t want to swing the pendulum too far in that direction.

Over lunch I sat with my team to talk about upcoming priorities, strategies, and legislation that I am preparing to introduce.

In the afternoon, I had a discussion with a current events group at Magruder High School. I left that meeting invigorated by the unique and amazing qualities of our MCPS students.

Rushing back to the office, I then met with the county executive’s team to talk about our progress on digital government. We will soon be rolling out an open data platform (as Burnham was urging this morning) and an array of other initiatives that I have been planning with the Executive Branch. They are doing a superb job getting this initiative going.

After some time chewing over various issues with my chief of staff, I headed down to Glen Echo for the Montgomery County Commission on Children and Youth’s awards event, where they honored the generous volunteers who do so much to support youth programs in the county.