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Progress Report on Broadband / High Speed Digital Networks

As the County Council’s Lead for Digital Government, I have articulated a vision for a digital Montgomery County, proposing policies that will enable our community to lean forward on technology and innovation.

With the rise of cloud computing, there is great urgency for establishing next-generation data networks that will enable researchers, entrepreneurs and government to operate at the cutting edge. I believe our continued economic progress depends on it, and that is why I have proposed a comprehensive strategy, detailed in two white papers, “Moving Montgomery Forward with Gigabit Networks” and a “Montgomery County Digital Infrastructure Strategic Plan.”

I am now pleased to report that we are making real progress. Working collaboratively with my colleagues on the County Council, particularly at the Government Operations (GO) Committee, where I serve with Chair Nancy Navarro and Councilmember Sidney Katz, and technologists in the executive branch, this vision is becoming a reality.

Years ago, Montgomery County made a wise decision to build a fiber optic data network, called FIberNet. Today, more than 567 sites — schools, libraries, rec centers, and government buildings — operate on that network. This is a remarkable achievement that puts Montgomery County in a leadership class of local governments.

Many years of constrained budgets, however, caused investment in fibernet maintenance to slide — a problem that must be remedied. With the new fibernet budget requested by the GO Committee and included in the FY17 budget, the county is turning that around. The $4 million annual fibernet budget, funded by fees on cable providers, along with a Network Operations Center, will ensure not only that the county government will get the benefit of a first class network but also so that the network can offer a market-competitive service for the private sector that can be used to generate revenue in the future.

Now we are ready to move more aggressively.

Building data networks for economic progress

The County’s economic strengths in the life, earth, bio and cybersecurity sectors are significant, and the presence of federal agencies, such as the FDA, NIST, NIH, NOAA, and others helps ensure that we have one of the most specialized and highly-educated workforces in the world. As the data-oriented (including real time video) work in these industries moves to the cloud, the county will need to be at the cutting edge in network capacity, so that the industries can operate seamlessly in the cloud — or the county will risk losing the advantage it has from hosting these organizations as they may shift investment to other locations.

In response to my first white paper on the nexus of broadband and economic development and the ongoing pressure of the Government Operations committee to move forward on this issue, the County Executive officially launched “ultraMontgomery” in 2014, and has recommended substantial funding for the program in this year’s budget. Key markers include:

The County is also actively exploring policy and regulatory changes that facilitate greater access to commercial high-speed networks, including new building codes and certifications for fiber-ready buildings, the creation of a Broadband Smart Map, and “Dig Once” policies.

Promoting access for residents

Broadband networks are core infrastructure, just like water pipes, roads, and schools. Government must take ownership over planning for the future of this infrastructure in order to benefit the residents.

Thanks to funding approved by the Council and with the reach provided by FiberNet, the County is adding 15 new locations with public WiFi and upgrading 17 more, for a total of 65. See the full list of current County WiFi locations here (page 6). At my request, the County has also agreed to make public WiFi available outside in the new Wheaton Town Square as part of the Wheaton Redevelopment Project.

To expand opportunities for people who ride buses, as well as make buses more attractive for those who otherwise can drive, RideOn will soon pilot public WiFi on a number of buses, as I argued for here. The pilot project will also test smart applications in the bus and shelter environment aimed at improving the riding experience and ultimately increasing ridership. These deployments are but a small sample of what is to come in the next few years.

With over 200 schools linked by FiberNet, MCPS is ready to expand the role of technology in education. With strong support from the Education and Government Operations Committee, chromebooks are already integrated into the curriculum for 3rd, 5th, and 6th graders as well has high school social studies classes. The plan is expand the rollout to the 7th grade, half of the 8th grade, and one high school content area this year. Students learn the new collaborative models for research, writing, and presentation projects through Google Apps for Education.

The “homework gap” is a term used to describe how some kids do not have the web access they need at home to complete their homework. The Council’s Education and Government Operations Committees recently held a hearing on how the County is addressing the homework gap and what can be done to improve our efforts. As a result of that discussion, MCPS is conducting further study about device gaps and broadband gaps. Agencies are working together to promote the $10 per month Comcast internet program for low income families, and the county has joined other jurisdictions, including through a resolution I introduced which passed at the National Association of Counties, as well as a letter from Next Century Cities, which I pressed the County to join, to support a new FCC requirement for telecom companies to subsidize broadband, not just land line, access (pdf).

It is clear that no one solution exists for combatting the “homework gap,” but as devices such as chromebooks become an integral part of the MCPS learning environment, we are focused on the problem.

Access in rural communities is a national concern, and more than one third of our county is set aside for farming. This area, nearly 100,000 acres, is called the Agricultural Reserve. Because we are committed to the success of the Ag Reserve, we must provide broadband service to the more than 2,000 properties there that do not have it today. That is why the County participated in a demonstration of 1gb Wireless technology that could be leveraged in the Ag Reserve, and the County, with encouragement from council member Roger Berliner, also negotiated reduced charges for Ag Reserve residents who want to link up to the Comcast network there — a model that may be extendable to other providers as well.

A Roadmap and Reorganization

These ideas and more are coming together in a Broadband Roadmap, now underway, which will lay out the county’s comprehensive vision of leveraging ultra high-speed broadband networks for economic development and community benefit. This roadmap, which I requested of the executive branch, will ultimately bear the stamp of not only the Leggett Administration, but the County Council, Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College, technologist residents, and other network stakeholders.

At my request, the County Executive has also agreed to consider reorganizing broadband responsibilities in our Department of Technology Services, to better align our staffing structure with our goals and make more effective investments in the program. While I initially proposed to create a Broadband Authority to take independent ownership of the function, as other jurisdictions are also considering, I agree that we should proceed carefully here and we may be able to achieve our goals with reorganization rather than creating an external entity. Time will tell.

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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 (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.