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County Officials Look At How To Make Open Data More Relevant

By Aaron Kraut

Friday - 11/22/2013, 10:30am  ET

The Elm Street garage, full on a recent weekendNearly a year since Montgomery County started publishing government records as part of an aggressive open data initiative, county officials gathered Thursday in Bethesda to get feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

Chief Innovation Officer Dan Hoffman and Chief Information Officer Sonny Segal are doing an inventory of the dataMontgomery website. The site includes data sets on employee salaries (by far the most popular), county permitting, parking garages, food inspection reports, county contracts and more.

But Hoffman said what you see on the website now is only a small portion of the data locked away in file cabinets in the offices of various county departments and agencies.

“I would describe this past year as dataMontgomery beta test. We put it up quickly and then we published a bunch of stuff that we had readily accessible and we’re continuing to publish stuff, almost every week,” Hoffman said.

He said publishing a full inventory, a process that requires extensive cooperation from county departments, could take three to five years.

Rebecca Williams, a policy analyst with the government open data nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, said Montgomery County’s program is leading the way in some respects. She said there were 24 open data policies in the country. Honolulu passed an open data bill earlier this month.

“The only other places that have done inventories are New York City and Chicago, which is playing with the idea,” Williams told the audience. “You should get really excited about it.”

Most at the event on Thursday were county employees. A few residents attended and gave feedback on information they’d like to see published and ways the website could be improved. But part of the challenge is finding data — and ways to present that data — that are understandable and relevant to county residents.

“After publishing everything, the next iteration is going back and visiting what we are publishing that’s really being used, what needs to be more granular,” Hoffman said.

A few county departments have quickly taken to the effort, even using real-time data that’s already being used for mobile phone apps.

The Division of Parking Management, within the county’s Department of Transportation, has overhead detectors at the entrances and exits to its often-cramped Lot 57 Garage at Bethesda Row. The detectors were originally installed for electronic signs outside the garage that show how many spaces are available.

Now, Parking Management has made that data available for dataMontgomery, updated every minute. The county is working on expanding the real-time parking data to county garages in Silver Spring and elsewhere in Bethesda. It’s already been incorporated into the popular ParkMe app.

In practical terms, county officials hope the ability to relay parking capacity data would encourage people to park in more rarely used garages around the downtown area. There’s a push to outfit a few parking facilities with detectors for each parking space, which would allow the county to study how long people park at spaces, how many people park in a garage and peak parking periods.