In the news

Maryland PIRG Foundation
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Frederick News Post
By
News-Post Editorial Board

Maryland is gradually improving its scoring when it comes to being transparent to the public, having moved from a C to a B- in a recently released report card from the Maryland PIRG Foundation.

That grade could get better: Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law this week legislation that may shine a little more light into the dark and dusty corners of state spending.

At the moment, much of the information available from Maryland agencies and other government boards and commissions is unavailable online. What there is, is made available at www.data.maryland.gov, which has 185 data sets, according to testimony by Barney Krucoff, a geographic information officer for the Maryland Department of Information Technology. That information was released under an executive order of Gov. Martin O’Malley. A second executive order required mapping data be put online: 268 data sets were released and is available at imap.maryland.gov, Krucoff said.

“We consider this to be a good start, but there are many more data sets that potentially could be shared with the public in this way,” Krucoff told the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

To get to the rest, you have to know what it is and formally request it in writing through a Maryland Public Information Act, in which case the public faces two major hurdles: the information made available may not be electronic, and the agency may charge for it.

Both have been used by agencies to purposely discourage the public seeking the information, either by threatening to only release reams of paper, or by charging exorbitant and extortionate amounts to release the info, or both.

Sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government, the new law will establish a 37-member Council on Open Data, which is “tasked with promoting the policy of the State that open data be machine readable and released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable, including through the use of open data portals,” according to a state analysis.

Lest you think this is purely the domain of watchdogs, like us in the media, “several business owners said more accessible government data could be used to create business that manipulate the data and produce usable commercial products or community services, such as the SpotCrime.com website,” according to a MarylandReporter.com article.

Representatives on the council will include state secretaries and department chiefs or their designees, representatives from local government, academics, private utilities or nonprofit organizations, among others. We also hope the governor reaches out to the news media or representative organizations, to join the committee.

“In a perfect world, this transition to open data would almost render the [public information act] obsolete,” Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Jennifer Bevan-Dangel testified before the HGO. “We can foresee a time in which info is online, it's accessible, it's searchable. and neither the agency staff need to respond to these PIA requests, nor do the agencies have to respond to them."

We can see that time, too, and will gladly advocate for any measures that move us in that direction. In the meantime, the Council on Open Data is a worthy and serious commitment to making government more accessible to citizens, and is to be applauded.

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