And just as the law grows, so will MarylandCode.org. A number of improvement projects are already underway, including crowdsourcedcitizen-suggested titles on all 31,649 sections, a handy issue tag cloud and cross-linking legislative references. What would you want to do with the Maryland code? Click here to see what projects are underway and to suggest your own.
Better access to civic information ultimately leads to more inclusive, informed policymaking. In that vein, citizens and public officials can now discuss and debate each individual piece of the law, contributing to the enrichment of all users while seamlessly starting conversations about legislative solutions.
“We’re excited to join with everyone interested in harnessing 21st Century technology in the spirit of James Madison,” Kraft added. “Our ultimate goal is to expand the range of free, no-nonsense technology solutions and strategies available to Maryland citizens and public servants working to leave a stronger state to the next generation.”
“And to all Maryland public servants, city officials and citizens looking to benefit from the power of open data and open government: we’re here to help. Send us your civic data and citizen-government collaboration challenges. We’ll deploy the get-it-done OpenGov geek squad.”
What Does MarylandCode.org Mean For Citizens, Public Servants & Developers?
● $0-Cost Solution - F-R-E-E. No gimmicks. No catches. Last year, the company hosting the unannotated Maryland Code charged taxpayers at least $299,493.62, according to Governor O’Malley’s handy open data portal. With family and state budgets tight, MarylandCode.orgis built to be a straight-forward savings solution.
● Humanizes Discovering & Reading the Law - Citizens should be able to search, discover and read the law with the aid of widely-available design and presentation innovations available everywhere else on the Internet. MarylandCode.org gives the law a user-friendly navigation and formatting update, and our team is hungry to make it better. Click here to tell us how you think it can be better, and we’ll package your improvements into future website updates.
● Breaks the PDF Stranglehold - before MarylandCode.org, state law was widely available in just two unfriendly, unmodern and frustrating formats: PDF documents on the Maryland Legislature website and in the hands of a private contractor. Answering even simple legal questions – like “tax laws” – could turn into time consuming, confusing hassles that required a law degree to navigate. PDFs are relics from a paper-based time. MarylandCode.org breaks the PDF stranglehold, while allowing citizens to comment directly on their state laws and interact directly with the code itself.
● Opens All Data to Developers, Hackers & Coding Geniuses -GEEK ALERT! If innovation and technology aren’t your things, skip to next bullet point. But if they are…MarylandCode.org comes with a fully-loaded API, letting developers tap into the data to build the apps, civic platforms and websites citizens want. Click here to get an API key andclick here to read the API documentation. The code XML is published on GitHub, as is all the free, open source software poweringMarylandCode.org.
● Liberates the Law from Copyright Restriction - right now, the unannotated Maryland Code is hosted by a private company that forces every visitor to agree to an onerous, 4,759-word “Terms of Service” agreement before they can even read the law. Click here to see what greets everyone. Worse, that private company subjects all information on its websites – including public information like the Maryland Code – to serious copyright restriction. Citizens have to ask permission and fill out a form to reuse or redistribute the text of their own laws. Here are the verbatim copyright restrictions placed on the unannotated Maryland Code:
“Materials available in this network of Web sites are protected by copyright law and are operated by LexisNexis or its affiliated companies (“LexisNexis”). Copyright © 2013 LexisNexis. All rights reserved. No part of the materials including graphics or logos, available in this Web site may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without specific permission (to request permission to use materials, continue to our Permission Request Form).”
Who Are the Heroes?
Hero #1 - MarylandCode.org proudly stands on the shoulders of the open-source software developer geniuses behind The State Decoded. Waldo Jaquith created Virginia Decoded, and helped immensely as we opened up the Maryland Code. He’s our hero. Click here to thank him on Twitter.
Open Access Leadership from the White House & Maryland Officials
President Barack Obama has recognized that the ability to freely access, reuse and redistribute public information – in the manner made possible by MarylandCode.org - is central to healthy socities and democracies in the 21st Century. In his historic December 2009 Open Government Directive, the President instructed all federal agencies to publish their data:
“…online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications. An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information.”
Open access advances aren’t limited to the White House. Right here in Maryland, smart and tech-savvy public servants have made good progress making city, state and national public data truly public. Highlights include:
● The Maryland Legislature now allows citizens to download limited, but regularly updated, amounts of legislative data in CSV files. It’s a great start. “The file includes information such as number, sponsor, title, legislative status, synopsis, committee assignments, legislative history, hearing dates, etc. for each piece of legislation introduced during the current legislative session,” according to their new website.
● StateStat, and the brand-new Data.Maryland.Gov, launched by Governor Martin O’Malley, embraces open data-driven governance and helps secure Maryland citizens’ right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. StateStat is all about “openness and accountability,”according to this interview with Governor O’Malley. “Perhaps the greatest value of this model of governance is that it brings government closer to the people it exists to serve.”
What’s an API (Application Programming Interface)?
According to The Wise Geek, an API is “a set of data structures, protocols, routines and tools for accessing a web-based software application. It provides all the building blocks for developing programs with ease.” The MarylandCode.org API lets others plug into our data so they can build software programs and applications that interact (and stay updated) seamlessly.
<<<Learn more about API’s>>>
What’s “open data”?
A good working definition comes from the Open Knowledge Foundation: “Data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike.” We’re all living better because of it. Will it rain tomorrow? Every TV news forecast, weather app or website runs on open weather data at some level. Lost? That map in your pocket runs on open data from the Global Positioning System (GPS). These – and an exploding constellation of products and services – are made possible by open data. Imagine the possibilities if all government information came this way!
<<<Learn more about open data>>>
What’s XML (Extensible Markup Language) and A “Bulk XML Download”?
XML is a document format that is both machine-readable and human-readable. That means it contains baked-in structures that computers, software and apps can understand, without all the technical gobbledygook that makes most machine-readable documents unintelligible to people. On MarylandCode.org, you’re reading XML (and so is your computer!). Popular uses of XML are Microsoft Office, Apple iWork, Libre Office and RSS.
A “bulk XML download” is a way for software developers to obtain a full set of the XML documents in a given set all at once.
<<<Learn more about XML>>>
What the Heck Are “Open Government” and the OpenGov Foundation?
We’re a scrappy little non-profit, non-partisan outfit working to open government. That means making it easier for people to access and use as much government information as possible. We believe innovative technology can help deliver a government that listens, works for its citizen-users, and learns from them. We are dedicated to putting better data and better tools in more hands. Our goal is to make or adapt those tools to be easy to use, efficient, scalable and free. Democracy means everyone should have chance to be a hands-on contributor.
Click here to learn more about Team OpenGov and click here to get your hands dirty with us.
Maryland has a rich American history of democratic participation and citizen-led self-governance. Open government is simply the next evolution. Open, accessible, human-friendly and restriction-free information like MarylandCode.org makes it all possible.
Something funny happened today on Capitol Hill - the happiest protest this city has ever seen. As Members of Congress and staff arrived at work today, we met them withsmiles, waves, (stickers!) and OpenGov Gratitude. Complete with home-cooked green and pink signs.
Why did we load up the Gratitude Van and take to the Hill? Just to say thanks. When people or outfits try to make government a little less of a hassle or a little more user-friendly, they deserve a high-five. Today, we gave one to NextGov for helping to build a smarter U.S. Congress with Madison.
With Legislation.NextGov.Com, the “all-day information resource for federal technology decision makers” is putting our free, open source baby to work opening up legislation for public collaboration – by their readers, citizens, stakeholders and those Washington tech decision makers.
NextGov’s Madison instance can add more than just value to its reporting on federal tech policy – it lets readers get involved, and gives public servants a useful way to listen and engage. And we believe that can produce meaningful improvements to both tech policy and the often-closed process behind it. Click here to send them a thank you on Twitter. And click here to learn more from the NextGov team.
Gratitude. Don’t leave home without it.
P.S. If you’d like a snazzy OpenGov sticker, click here to drop me a line with your mailing address and we’ll get it off to you straight-away!
By Seamus Kraft
Published March 15, 2013
Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director at OpenGov Foundation – an organization dedicated to developing and deploying technologies that support every citizen’s ability to participate in their government and hold it accountable. You can reach him at @seamuskraft
The best technology is insidiously useful. It does not force better ways of doing business. It suggests them, extending the familiar and comfortable without the user realizing she has gone farther, faster, smoother. Like the perfect note in a song, you cannot imagine it not being there.
The purpose of Congress is to make policy on behalf of taxpayers. Public officials perform very specific and specialized tasks to fulfill that purpose. Citizens keep an eye on them and hold them accountable. Can technology help these users — inside and outside of government — collaborate to do their jobs better? Project Madison, launched by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), was our first attempt at answering in the affirmative.
The mission: hack together software to crowdsource critiques of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) while cooperating with citizen-users to transparently and accountably develop an alternative — the OPEN Act — that wouldn’t harm the Internet and those who depend on it. “Open government” was an important, but second-order, development goal.
Here’s how it worked, according to Fast Company: “Project Madison is a stripped-down interactive blogging platform, which allows citizens to select individual passages of legislation, and strike or add their own language, with comments for each suggestion. Citizens are encouraged to like or dislike each change, with the most popular suggestions rising to the top. Each page also has embedded Facebook and Twitter buttons that link to individual amendments.”
Madison wasn’t hard to build. Yet using it to put open government principles into live-fire practice was a significant risk. To even get off the ground, it had to pass two tough tests. First, Madison had to demonstrably help each team member — digital, communications, legislative staff, Members of Congress —do his or her job more efficiently. And second, it had to happen as an extension of what its first users — those fighting SOPA and PIPA inside and outside of government — were already doing.
Complicated meant death. Unfamiliar meant death. Time consuming meant death.
Madison Beta Test Results (December 2011-January 2013)
Members of the Madison Community: 2,433
Documents in Madison: 11
Unique Visitors: 667,761
Countries of Origin: 193
Page Views: 1,017,338
We got lucky. Our challenging development environment forced us to do things we might not have otherwise: build simple, build light, build exactly to the specs of users leaning over our shoulders in Congress or bombarding us with tweets. That’s how Madison ended up being a no-nonsense tool to make an age-old American process — democratic, participatory policy development — work a little bit more effectively. It wasn’t sexy, but it did deliver a solid place for citizens to watch the SOPA markup, access the bill and amendments in real time, critique and develop legislation equally alongside the Members of Congress and staff they were watching on the webcast. Madison users inside of government were armed for policy battle with the best, most vetted and technically correct information possible, plus a truly open and collaborative alternative solution.
As CNN put it, Madison “makes the democratic process just a bit easier.” And it bought time for millions of ordinary people and digital job creators to tune in, black out and quickly change many of the minds that mattered most: Members of Congress who had to take a public stance on SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA. It filled a very timely need, but it also stirred something far greater in us. Madison felt like how we – public servants and citizens – were supposed to be doing our jobs in the 21st century.
Innovating to get it done faster and better. Empowering citizens. Encouraging participation and open debate. Achieving more together. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work in America?
That is what “open government” means to us at OpenGov. We believe there are as many ways to achieve it as there are jobs to do and people to do them. What works for Code for America’s users in San Francisco may or may not work for the White House’s We the People users.
That’s why it is vital for those who attempt to open government to share their stories far and wide. What has worked? What has failed? Why? Good storytelling is even more critical now, because that’s the only way the uninitiated — pretty much everyone — will be able to understand, support and adopt this movement as their own.
Our goal is to take a little bit of the hassle out of being a citizen and a public official. We believe users deserve to be met where they are. Tools should be designed to help users do their jobs more efficiently and effectively today. That’s how “open government” will stealthily morph into “how government works.” Success means you can’t imagine the tech not being there.
- Lanham Napier, OpenGov Board Member & CEO of Rackspace, Inc.
By John McKenna
Published March 14, 2013
Information and technology are disruptive. But data-driven disruption is what will ultimately break down the barriers of closed, inaccessible, unaccountable government. The OpenGov Foundation is a scrappy little tech non-profit working to open government and developing and deploying tools that help people participate in their government and hold it accountable.
OpenGov, which utilizes the Rackspace Open Cloud through the Rackspace Startup Program, builds things to make it easier to know what government is doing and spending. But knowing is only half the battle; OpenGov products make it possible for people to act on that knowledge and contribute to government policymaking on their own terms. Simply put, the OpenGov Foundation strives to take a little bit of the hassle out of being a citizen.
“At OpenGov, we’re passionate about people,” exclaims Seamus Kraft, co-founder and Vice Chairman of the OpenGov Foundation. “Because without people, the world is worthless. So we get up every morning fired up to help people connect and solve problems together. Life, like government, should be a group project. Our goal is to make it that way.”
The Foundation was born from the battle to stop the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and keep the Internet open. After co-founder and Chairman Darell Issa, U.S. Representative for California’s 49th congressional district, stood up against it, the Foundation started a spirited resistance in Congress. Outnumbered inside, OpenGov watched in awe as millions of Internet users spoke out – normal people and geeks like us. Clearly, SOPA struck a nerve and people turned to the very thing under threat to save it – the web. They didn’t just want a better bill – they wanted a better way to make bills.
The OpenGov Foundation’s answer was the Madison Project, an online policy collaboration tool that lets people work with their elected leaders to write laws. The team at OpenGov believes that’s the way government is supposed to function. The Foundation began to share Madison and the Madison mindset with the mantra “if Internet users can use technology to make Washington run better, it can happen anywhere.”
Madison has grown up since then, becoming open source software free for anyone to use while opening policy documents previously off-limits to individuals and the Internet community. Right now, the OpenGov Foundation is working to make Madison better, adding functionality and building out a Madison database to host all of the collaborative documents users want to work on. This effort is running in parallel to a hosted Madison solution, so anyone can create their own collaborate policy environment without the need for coding or server expertise. With more collaborative open source development help, Madison can become a free turnkey solution anyone can use to unlock policy documents and advance the truly open, accountable government.
“As we learned in the fight against the ill-conceived SOPA and PIPA bills, one of the best ways to counter the influence of special interests in government is to open up the process to the views and insights of all our citizens,” says Lanham Napier, CEO of Rackspace, and a member of the OpenGov board of directors. ”We’ll get better laws and regulations when every citizen has the access to vital government information — and to lawmakers — that today is available only to the privileged few: the lobbyists and campaign contributors and bureaucrats. The OpenGov Foundation is using innovative tools and technologies to open up access to the legislative process for all our citizens, including those who have technical expertise in the industries being regulated, and whose views today are often not solicited or heard. The Foundation, with help from Rackspace, is working to make its tools easy to use, efficient, scalable and free. We all need to push for a government that listens, operates in a transparent manner, works for all its citizens and learns from them. The Madison Project is a terrific starting point.”
OpenGov’s Kraft notes that the Foundation came to Rackspace after noticing similarities in the two organizations’ penchants for disruption and strong allegiance to open source.
“Rackspace gets it,” concludes Kraft. “From Lanham on down, the company is disruptive and relentlessly innovative; however, the most important part is that Rackspace applies disruption and innovation to deliver better products for its current users and those startups just getting off the ground. And all of that is happening with a strong focus on collaboration. Look no further than OpenStack. When we looked around for a partner – a place to lay the OpenGov information foundation – and saw the vibrant open source software culture at Rackspace, we stopped looking and picked up the phone. With that said, in 2013, our goal is twofold: deliver a Madison hosted solution and expand usage of the platform in state and local government environments.”
By Kevin Hansen
Published March 8, 2013
As the still young online industry began to realize the threats presented by the bill, panic set in. Lobbying efforts were hastily organized–sites like Wikipedia and Reddit blacked out content to protest, closing their virtual shops for the day. But these non-profits, start-ups and tech companies impacted by the legislation didn’t have lobbyists or fully mature industry associations. Moreover, despite their wealth of expertise and ability to promote awareness, they didn’t have a means of translating their knowledge of the bill’s flaws into meaningful guidance for all of the Capitol Hill staffer-types who were supervising the bill on behalf of their representatives. Enter Seamus Kraft and Chris Birk: two Congressional staffers working for Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA).
As Chris and Seamus point out, today’s methods of providing feedback to Congress aren’t as effective as they could be. Constituents may send letters or pick up the phone and explain why they don’t like a bill, but these comments are rarely of a nature that is specific enough to fix real legislative glitches. It’s essentially, “This is a bad bill,” or “This is a good bill,” and unless you’ve hired a high-powered lobbyist, you’re out of the game.
“There aren’t really any feedback loops—or any good ones—in that entire process. So a constituent would write a letter saying I liked this bill you did, here’s why, or I didn’t like this bill you did, here’s why..they get a response back, and that’s kind of the end of it. That’s not very useful: a) because that data is divorced from the actual policymaking process, and b) it stops, and conversation and policymaking is a continuous conversation.”
Moreover, the entire nature of the communication is flawed–it’s in silos, meaning that individuals can’t collaborate to pool their collective knowledge on specific fixes. So, Chris and Seamus asked an interesting question: what if, through technology, Congress allowed anyone in the world who might be affected by the bill enter the same digital room? Interested parties could add specific in-text comments on precisely what they felt was wrong with a section and create online forums on how best to rewrite it–out in the open, where everyone could see all contributions, and in real-time. Even better, maybe those people could collaborate to submit their own version of an entirely new law to lawmakers?
Out of this basic idea was born Madison: a small-scale software program to do just that, with massive implications for leveling the lobbying playing field. At a cost of perhaps $5,000, most of which “went to pizza and Red Bull,” Chris and Seamus developed the basic programming necessary to build Madison and host it on their newly created website: www.keepthewebopen.com. Their only question: if they built it, would the people really come?
In their first day, 150,000 did. By the end of the pilot year, a staggering 667,761 unique visitors from 193 different countries of origin had racked up 1,017,338 page views onkeepthewebopen.com. Moreover, 2,433 users had registered 1,420 formal comments. Put simply, the reaction was overwhelming.
Seamus offers a few reasons, paraphrased: 1) legislators already have their day jobs to worry about without innovating the legislative process, 2) not many legislators know how to code, and 3) building something like Madison, which could have failed spectacularly, seems like a big political risk. Representative Issa’s extra pocket change and tolerance for risk may have helped, but it was the SOPA-fueled demand for urgently gathering feedback from non-traditional advocates that finally catalyzed Madison’s creation and adoption. In Seamus’ words, “It was, like Waterloo, a close run thing.”
In listening to Seamus and Chris’ story, it’s useful to highlight a few takeaways for future civic innovators:
- Build to the specification. Put differently, this basically means that whatever you do should complement the existing process and make others’ jobs easier, not harder. Designing to specification means aligning an innovation with existing government processes to the extent possible:“If there were adoption costs for anybody involved beyond the barest of bare minimums, this was not going to fly…Because we were software developers, and legislators, and staff-we built to our spec…We weren’t going to say, “Don’t talk about this on Twitter,” or, “If you want to talk to me about SOPA, do it in Madison”–that’s stupid, and it’s also inefficient. But, if you were talking about SOPA with me in Twitter, and it got to the point beyond either I like SOPA or I don’t–”what is the section of SOPA that does this?” Then, “Ah-ha. Click right here.”
- The technology is not the hard part. The key is often much more about changing the infrastructure, policies and practices of government.
- Don’t underestimate the crowd’s intelligence. Legislation is an arcane and very different language from spoken English, and not too many coders are also policy wonks. As Seamus points out, there was a real fear that SOPA was too complex to be understood and commented on by everyday Americans with other jobs. But it wasn’t.
- Don’t underestimate the crowd’s free time. Nearly all of the hundreds of thousands who visited Madison undoubtedly did so of their own accord and interest. Sure, not every bill will see these kind of participation rates, but most people weren’t getting paid for their comments. As Seamus notes, “It’s that warm fuzzy inside of all of us.”
- Broaden your definition of “expert.” Every single human being has had a unique existence, and there are learnings, experiences and insights that all of us have to offer.
One of my last questions was on the future of Madison. How long until we have it for every piece of legislation in the nation? Thankfully, Madison was developed as open source tool, meaning that any legislative body in the world is welcome to take their code. Your city councilmember uncle who you always argue with at Thanksgiving dinner? Tell him about Madison. Your state representative? Tell her about Madison. By the time Seamus and Chris are through, they and their Open Gov Foundation will have changed lawmaking.