Maryland Council on Open Data

Back in May, I had the honor of being appointed to the newly established Maryland Council on Open Data. The Council had its inaugural meeting in Baltimore yesterday and was heavily attended, including attendance by Governor Martin O’Malley. I’ll discuss his remarks to the group later.

As the first meeting of a new group, it went off largely as I expected. The agenda consisted primarily of an overview of the establishing legislation, a review of ethics requirements, demos of the existing open data portals, discussion of the history of open data in Maryland, and remarks from the Governor.

I won’t go into details about the make-up of the Council, but they can be found here Nor will I do a deep dive into the legislation, but it can be found here: (PDF). I will instead focus on my take-aways from the meeting itself.

First, the establishing legislation makes data in Maryland open by default, unless it falls under certain criteria (personally identifiable information, law enforcement sensitive, etc.). Second, it is in fact legislation. Previous open data initiatives (MSGIC Executive Committee and the Maryland Open Data Working Group), were established by executive order. As a result, they were vulnerable to reversal by subsequent administrations and they had no real effect on other branches of government. Because of the new legislation, the open data has greater durability and active, enthusiastic participation from the state legislature.

So the new Council unifies the previous efforts and has top cover from the legislation. That can only be a good thing. The state currently has two open data portals: an Esri Open Data portal for geospatial data and a Socrata portal for everything else. In practice, the lines between them may not be so distinct, but that’s the stated role of each.

It is clear that open data is important to the Governor. Since his days as the Mayor of Baltimore, he has been known as a data-driven executive. The “CityStat” concept in Baltimore evolved into “StateStat” when he moved to Annapolis. It is widely known that data and metrics back everything his administration does. Open data is the other side of the coin. It is the mechanism by which the supporting data and metrics of the state government are made public.

In his remarks, the Governor highlighted Maryland’s top ranking (shared by six states) in the Center for Data Innovation report of August 18, 2014 but then quickly addressed the remaining weaknesses identified. Specifically, he discussed:

  • Reporting on spending data
  • The need for a more complete picture of all data sets
  • The need for better minimum metadata standards
  • The need for a uniform standard for giving citizens access to public information

These are all fairly easy to address on the surface. In the open discussion that followed, the theme that I took away was “culture.” Maryland has the policy framework and a good start on a technical framework to more fully open its data. The hard work, as it always is, is transforming the culture. As the requirements for opening data begin to trickle down into the daily lives of the people handling information, I think a lot of workflows will change. I also suspect some of the standards chosen for achieving compliance with open data requirements will facilitate significant changes to technical architectures in individual departments. In short, the proverbial onion will part to get peeled.

It’s a lot of work and it won’t happen quickly. I am excited for the opportunity to participate. I have worked in the private sector for my entire career (although in professional services to the government), so this is my first foray into anything resembling being on the public sector side of things. I expect I’ll have a lot to learn.

My interest in open data has been somewhat spurred by the infrastructure data contraction that occurred in the mid-2000s in reaction to domestic security concerns. I felt it was the wrong direction to go then and I don’t think making data harder to acquire really helped anyone. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do on the Council to achieve the benefits other states, like Arkansas, have achieved through opening data rather than closing it off.