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Montgomery County's New Open Data Bill

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This afternoon, the Montgomery County Council voted unamimously in favor Bill 23-12, the Mongtomery County Open Data Act of 2012. Through this law, the county plans to release new data sets, develop a single web portal linked to the county’s homepage, and, more interestingly, charge the Chief Administrative Officer to create an implementation plan for defining agency participation and compliance.

The councilmembers behind this bill clearly did their homework, and we’re glad to see that so many best practices outlined in Sunlight's Open Data Policy Guidelines made their way into Montgomery’s approach, particularly when it comes to data licensing and re-use (2-154(f)) and how the open data bill will intersect with relevant existing laws, like Maryland’s Public Information Act (2-159). These measures are thoughtful and equally important additions to the bill's more classic provisions, such as the creation of a county open data portal (2-154), the choice of open technical standards (2-157), and the requirement for new datasets to be released (2-154).

Originally, the bill included more best practices, such as specific guidance for how agencies should prioritize data (leaning towards disclosure in the public interest -- good choice) and required that the County not just release “some” data (as it stands now), but that each County agency release one dataset. These and other provisions were ultimately removed and amended by the County Executive to fall under an Open Data Implementation Plan that would be directed by the Chief Administrative Officer (though ultimately put to the Council for approval).

Effective open data policies are all about balance: Too much aspirational vision with too little practical guidance for funding and implementation and the wheels fall off. The same can be said for policies that swing in the other direction, opting to be overly specific about open formats and technology systems, without consideration for the leaps in technical improvements and analytic needs that will come when the technology of today is outdated (and the companies contracted have long closed their doors and shut down their servers).

These tensions are reflected in the Montgomery Implementation Plan, which is strung between the County’s ambition to be more open and provide greater public access to information, and the County’s need to deliver on its promises. On one hand, the Plan offers an opportunity for stability by empowering the Executive to ensure sufficient funding, staffing, and compliance to follow through on the bill. On the other, if not drafted in public or infused with measures for accountability, the Implementation Plan runs the risk of dampening the ambitious goals of the Open Data Bill to serve the needs of bureaucracy. (One of a few "slippery slope" concerns that also show up in review of the bill’s overly exclusive definition of data (2-153) and overbroad timeline (2-158).)

That’s all to say, while such a tack may not be appropriate in all open data policy contexts, its development in Montgomery County will be something to watch. A binding regulation like this, if properly open to public feedback, could be a long-run antidote to some of the problems developed in “open” legislation and executive orders modelled too closely on the Open Government Directive, a federal plan that inspired a wave of agency plans and very little open data (or accountability, for that matter). Then again, it could just repeat them.

Very few counties have entered into the fray of open data policy-making. We're encouraged to see our neighbors ("MoCo" is located just north of DC) take on this task and look forward to watching its development.