Montgomery County’s Open Data Town Hall, the Town Hall of the Future

On Thursday November 21st, Montgomery County, Maryland hosted an Open Data Town Hall to solicit feedback from citizens about what data they would like to see prioritized for release online under Montgomery County’s open data law. The Sunlight Foundation’s Alisha Green and Rebecca Williams of the Sunlight Municipal Policy team and Sunlight Labs’ Developers Jeremy Carbaugh and Kaitlin Devine (many of whom are Montgomery County residents) were in attendance to praise Montgomery County for their unique public participation route to prioritizing open data release and most importantly to: chat data.

Public Input on Releasing Public Information

Montgomery County made the unique decision to organize an Open Data Town Hall as the first in a series of meetings to proactively reach out to residents to see what data is high public demand, while city officials are simultaneously working behind the scenes to complete a full audit of their data holdings. With the anticipation of a full list of datasets in mind, Montgomery County looked to its residents to see what order to release this information in.

While only a few governments with open data laws are currently attempting to complete full dataset audits to inform the public of what data is available (see the federal government, New York City, and a full list here), even fewer communities are actively engaging with the public to determine how to prioritize what data in that list is released first. New York City created a Open Data Plan release schedule for much of their data by 2018, but did not cite public input as a determining factor in the schedule decision making process and while New York state published an Open Data Handbook a few weeks ago, with an extensive 22-question guide to prioritization (some mentioning public requests), public meetings were not included in their scheduling plan. Most notably, Philadelphia conducted a bottom up Open Data Race in 2011, which gathered feedback from non-profits (with problems to solve!) and citizens to help determine which data would be prioritized for release. Currently, Philadelphia and Montgomery County are the outlier examples though, with most governments providing limited engagement options, with an email link or a nomination button on a data portal (if you know where to find it) being the only options. Montgomery County’s Open Data Town Hall is unique because it more actively engaged residents in the determining what data should be opened first and because it appropriately provided a public gathering (a traditional means of governance) to discuss open data in addition to the electronic means.

Data Talk

Montgomery County residents and Sunlight Developers, Kaitlin Devine (pictured above) and Jeremy Carbaugh attended the Open Data Town Hall as open data advocates, engineers, and interested citizens. Their impressions of chatting data with Montgomery County officials and citizens are below:

Kaitlin’s take:

” I was surprised and happy to see a diverse representation from different parts of the government at the town hall. At many of these kinds of events, there is representation from the office spearheading the open data initiative, but not a lot of buy in from other departments. The town hall had a strong showing from all over the government, that included those who were intimately familiar with the data they were responsible for releasing. They were also open about discussing their release schedules and what their future plans were. I talked mostly with representatives from public safety about opening up crime data and the Department of General Services about opening up their spending data. Overall, I was impressed with their enthusiasm for their respective projects and their plans for data release.”

Jeremy’s take:

“The county employees in attendance had an obvious desire to release data to the public. Montgomery County GIS information has been notoriously difficult to obtain without significant financial investment, but a GIS employee indicated that it is one of the main data sets that is being considered for release. The Department of Transportation seems genuinely excited about getting public transit data into the hands of residents. However, as with any large organization, there is a non-trivial level of effort involved in getting buy in from various departments that have jurisdiction over specific data. It will take time for the county to work through the approvals necessary for release and some data sets will take longer than others, but the momentum is clear and encouraging.”

And what data did the rest of Montgomery County citizens ask for? See the full list of Open Data Town Hall results here.

Montgomery County’s efforts to incorporate public input into the implementation of their open data law via a traditional town hall meeting are refreshing and something we have not seen a lot of. We at Sunlight will keep our eyes peeled for additional examples of how open data laws are being implemented across the country (as well as in our backyard). As always, feel free to reach out to or leave a comment below.