Data and confidentiality have sparked big stories the past few months. Between Manning and Snowden, there’s been discussion, conspiracy and crime around data that exists and how that data is used. It often seems that the rules under which we must live are shrouded in obscurity. For the average non-law-degreed citizen, specifics on law and governance are hard to find, or had been until now. On July 17th Baltimore became the first city to open its state-level legal information to the public. Essentially, the Baltimore City Charter and Code were liberated through a transition from .pdf to searchable document. The OpenGov Foundation (OGF) leads this initiative. OGF implemented The State Decoded, a non-partisan open source project built under the premise of free, friendly, and accessible rule. Baltimore is the first city to deploy the software, hoping it will make government easier to access. It’s important to note that while OGF is not authorized by the city, OGF aims to facilitate a more efficient system and serve people by way of a low cost law access model. Under the premise that “data-driven disruption” will break down traditional barriers of closed government often leading to inaccessibility and unaccountability, it is expected that transparency will increase government and citizen relations.

Baltimore was approached by OGF because OGF felt Maryland was “incredibly representative” of the rest of the country. Seamus Kraft, the co-founder of OGF, explains that Maryland is a state on par with most others when it came to demographics, government involvement, level of confidentiality, accessible information, and accountability.

In our country today, most governments are not caught up with technology. The State Decoded project believes it can close this gap, helping government systems make the leap to optimal data usage and analysis. Through the State Decoded Project, transferring charters and laws isn’t as easy as scanning and uploading documents. Not only is most of the text in .pdf format rendering itself relatively unsearchable on older systems, but the law in Baltimore is copyrighted in format and structure. Fearing massive reuse and alteration, the law is protected from republication by any entity- government or otherwise. While this may cater to protection, it also means that laws and regulations can’t build upon each other. rule making must start from scratch every time. OGF circumvented this hurdle by acquiring data under the creative commons license. This isn’t a fix all, as major parts of Baltimore code fall under different types of copyrights, but it’s a start. One of the ongoing challenges has proven to be the shift in law, as rule-making certainly is not static. There’s currently no auto-update of previously published laws, but OGF hopes to one day have live-updates implemented. That said, this project runs the risk of becoming outdated very quickly, similar to visiting a Mypace page that hasn’t been updated since 1999, or viewing a tour calendar from 2006. That which was once incredibly pertinent, now no longer matters.

The Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Information Technology reports no hesitancy in helping to implement the Data Decoded project, which reflects the mayors commitment to civic engagement and transparency. “It’s public information,” reported Heather Hudson, newly appointed Chief Data Officer in Information Technology  I’m not sure why the law is copy written, but at the end of the day, all the laws are public information. If this [project] means its easier for people to use [the charter], its better. Not only is the law easier for people to access and use, sets of eyes can now help the department clean up the data. Both Seamus and Heather claimed the users are projected to drive the development. “If it’s wrong, someone can tell us,” says Heather. There’s “another set of eyes to keep the data clean.” Chris Tonjes, director of the Office, and Mayor Rawlings-Blake are proponents of free data, though Heather warns that not all city workers will have her enthusiasm. Heather’s sole job is to create a data warehouse and build a path to predictive analytics. Heather explains that many people see transparency in open data like they see financials. These numbers are boring, but they’re “juicy,” as numbers can be spun and tweaks to show nearly anything. “It’s the kind of thing reporters love,” she says. Though Heather continues to talk about the fun possibilities that open data can provide. She excitedly spoke about creating bicycle tours of murals and accessing restaurants by smart-phone app. While Heather needs to find a balance in her job between the streamlined data and the more socially-driven fun data, she hopes someone out there can create the fun portion of the data. Heather is “anxious and hungry’ for people to write apps for the city.

A necessary balance of number crunching doesn’t seem to slow the department from making waves. Heather is redesigning Open Baltimore with new modules which she hopes will significantly improve visibility and access – there’s a lot to do. Heather dreams of data pushing; she would love to have more publicly accessible laws about events and permitting, as lots of development can rest on this kind of data.

One of the greatest Open Data possibilities is the ability to translate analytics into policy making and more targeted government service. If everyone in a particular neighborhood begins searching for laws regarding open street festivals, for example, then the government can see an increased demand for events, thereby responding through an organized and official block party. Could you imagine? It would be like the government responding to the question you never asked. Baltimore had not yet asked OGF for analytics, nor did the City know they existed. “I’ll ask now,” Heather said, when I told her about the possibility to acquire the data. “I don’t know why we haven’t asked for it yet… The city wants to reach out and predict where services need to be ramped up, if we can see that, we want to know.”

Heather is optimistic and forward thinking, wanting to publish more data than they have so far. The greatest challenge, Heather admits, is that city data isn’t in easily consumable formats. There are legacy systems and databases, making the collection of information far from user friendly. Even if and when it gets easier to acquire, there’s quite a bit of scrubbing that needs done. They want to “share it all” but they need to fix the source before they can publish data to the masses. Data integrity needs to be done before the data is published, but learning from mistakes is forcing the City IT department to do the governance piece first. By feeding off the improvement of data they can try and right instances where the cart has been brought before the horse.

Want to get involved/ Not only is Heather looking for creative people to develop apps, but the OpenGov Foundation is constantly looking for talented developers or users who have apps and ideas. You should drop them a line.

  • Anonymous

    If Heather Hudson really wanted citizen feedback she probably should have provided her email address.