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:
- Establishes an open data policy for county government, with the intention of publishing a comprehensive data set for each department
- 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
- 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.