Open Data Policy called step forward for Md. transparency

Maryland was recently ranked 46th in the nation for transparency, but a new law could put the state ahead with a policy requiring that data be made more easily accessible to the public.

Though officials post a good deal of public information on Maryland's StateStat database, advocates of open government say that data can be hard to evaluate, search and use because it is not formatted in a way that computers can easily scan.

The Maryland Open Data Policy, passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley this month, requires the state to make much of its public information machine-readable and searchable.

"This is the first step of this new pillar of governmental transparency and open data," said Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government.

The state has other challenges to overcome if it is going to improve its low ranking, issued in a study by State Integrity Investigation. Many of the issues had to do with the shortcomings of the Maryland Public Information Act, which entitles citizens to government information but provides for myriad exceptions, delays and fees.

Still, experts say Maryland's law on government data will be among the best in the nation.

"It's a really great step forward," said Mark Headd, Philadelphia's former chief data officer, who now works as a developer for Accela Inc., a company that provides open data software for governments.

Ferguson hopes a move toward better data availability will render flaws in the Public Information Act less critical. "If data and information is provided in open format by default, there's less concern about requesting it," he said.

The law will convene a Council on Open Data with experts, business owners and representatives of each executive state agency to standardize how information is filed, so that it can be searched easily. It will not affect local government data.

Aside from privacy concerns, the other major critique of such programs is their expense. There's no estimate yet for how much it will cost to transition the state's data.

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