Category Archives: howardcounty

Fun with Howard County building permit data

tl;dr: I have fun creating graphs and maps with building permit data from data.howardcountymd.gov.

I’ve written previously about the cornucopia of interesting data sets that Howard County government has made available at the data.howardcountymd.gov site. I had some spare time over a long weekend and decided to try analyzing some of that data, including making use of the various map files on the site (under the “Spacial Data (GIS)” tab).

The particular data set I decided to start with was for building permits issued for residential and commercial construction—not because I have a burning interest in building permits but because I mentioned this type of data in my last post and thought it would be a relatively easy data set to analyze. The particular question I decided to look at was how many residential building permits were issued in each zip code within Howard County in 2014—basically to get a feel for where the most construction was occurring in the county. (It’s only an approximate measure because some permits cover multiple units.)

bar chart showing Howard County residential building permits per zip code

To do the analysis I used the skills and the tools I learned in the courses that are part of the Johns Hopkins data science specialization series on Coursera. (See my Coursera-related posts for more on my experiences in these classes.) I won’t go over the process here since I’ve separately published full details on my RPubs page, with the source code available in my hocodata GitHub repository.

I first created a simple table of the top zip codes for residential permits issued. This was sort of boring so I won’t reproduce it here; you can find it in the first example analysis I did. More interesting is the bar chart I created as part of the second example. It’s clear from the chart that there’s wide variation among Howard County zip codes in terms of residential construction. The two Ellicott City zip codes combined (21042 and 21043) accounted for the largest fraction of residential building permits in 2014; in contrast there were almost no permits issued for east Columbia (21045).

Howard County map showing residential building permits per zip code

However what I really wanted to create was a map showing exactly where permits were being issued across the county. The Howard County GIS division provides on data.howardcountymd.gov a set of map data for zip codes within Howard County. After doing a bit of research and experimentation, in my third example I was able to use this in conjunction with the building permit data to produce a map that is a nice alternative to the bar chart.

I have to stop here and ask the unspoken question: What’s the point of all this? I’d answer as follows:

First, this shows that releasing government data empowers people to do interesting things with it, especially when combined with free software and easily available online information and training. Maybe everybody isn’t interested in building permit data or any other individual government data set, but I suspect that there are a fair amount of people out there who are, including small businesses, nonprofit organizations, or just individual activists and interested citizens.

Second, I did all this in a way that is completely reproducible by anyone else. How often have you seen a graph or map in a newspaper or government report and wondered, where exactly did that data come from? Wonder no longer: In my examples I start with the raw data as released by Howard County and show all my work in analyzing the data and creating the tables, charts, and maps.

Finally, this is all reusable and adaptable. For example, suppose you have a better source of data on construction activity, perhaps one that gives the actual numbers of residential units, commercial square footage, and so on. You can easily plug that modified data into the analysis steps I’ve documented, and create better versions of the charts and maps in my examples.

You can also reuse the overall technical approach for any type of data tied to a geographic area within Howard County. For example, in addition to zip code areas the data.howardcounty.gov site contains map data for Howard County school districts, election precincts, census tracts, and many other subdivisions of the county. If you have data sets that are based on those subdivisions (for example, vote totals or turnout percentages for precincts) then you can adapt the code I wrote (all of which is in the public domain) to create your own maps showing how that data varies across the county.

The bottom line is that the data is out there for the picking, as are the tools to make sense of it. You just need to spend some time learning how to use them or (if you don’t feel up to the task yourself) finding someone who can. Have fun!

Howard County government by the numbers

tl;dr: As we wait to hear more about Allan Kittleman’s HoCoStat proposal, you don’t have to wait to download lots of useful county-related data at data.howardcountymd.gov.

During his (ultimately successful) campaign for Howard County Executive, one of Allan Kittleman’s key proposals was to establish HoCoStat, a program to (in Kittleman’s words), “measure … response and process times for various government functions” to help “increase responsiveness, improve efficiency and heighten accountability”. Kittleman’s administration is in its early days, and nothing much has been heard yet about how and when HoCoStat might be implemented. (Even the original HoCoStat proposal has disappeared from Kittleman’s web site as it’s being redesigned, although the Internet archive has a copy.)

But don’t despair! While we’re waiting for HoCoStat to make an appearance there’s other Howard County data-related resources we can explore. In particular, the data.howardcountymd.gov site has a good and growing collection of county-related datasets, many of them tied to county maps—no surprise, since the site is maintained by the county’s Geographic Information System (GIS) Division. Part of what makes the site great is that it is not just presenting predefined maps and PDF documents, but also provides the raw data used to create those maps.

For example, suppose you’re interested in building permits issued in Howard County. At the simplest level you can view an interactive map showing the locations for all such permits; you can click on the icons corresponding to the issued permits and see the exact address, date when the permit was issued, and other information.

But let’s suppose you want to do more in-depth analysis of permits issued: For example, which areas are seeing the most residential or commercial permits issued? Or, what is the trend for permits issued over time? The data.howardcountymd.gov site also lets you download the raw data behind the map in a variety of formats, for example in CSV format for use with Excel spreadsheets or statistical software like R, KML format for use with Google Maps and Google Earth, and several others. Armed with the relevant data files you can create your own maps and do your own analysis, including combining the Howard County data with data from other sources like U.S. Census data.

All in all the site—which is still evolving—is a model for how Howard County government can make useful data available to the Howard County individual and corporate taxpayers who are ultimately paying for county services. It would be great to see this strategy extended to HoCoStat as well. For example, when promoting the HoCoStat proposal Allan Kittleman pointed to (among others) Montgomery County’s CountyStat site as a model to emulate. While CountyStat is very nice, it has the disadvantage that you can’t see the raw data behind the performance indicators.

For example, CountyStat has some summary statistics relating to issuance of building permits: average number of days to issue a residential permit, commercial permits for new construction, or other commercial permits. But there’s a lot more one might want to know: For example, what’s the variability in the time to issue permits? Are there some permits that for whatever reason took a really long time to issue? How does the time to issue permits vary across the county? Are there particular areas that (for whatever reason) are experiencing greater or lesser delays in getting permits issued? Having the raw data behind the indicators would permit (no pun intended) interested parties to answer these questions, from commercial developers doing large-scale projects down to a small contractor building a single home.

As I wrote in my previous post on Howard County government data initiatives, providing unfettered access to raw data (subject to reasonable concerns relating to individual privacy and corporate confidentiality) is key to making government data useful: It allows the private and civic sectors to exercise their own creativity in using that data, rather than trying to have government anticipate every possible use for it, and also lets the private and civic sectors hold government accountable by enabling them to do their own independent analyses of government data. It’s great to see what Howard County government (and the GIS Division in particular) has been and is doing to make useful data generally available. I hope that as the Kittleman administration gets down to work and the HoCoStat program is implemented that that spirit of openness and commitment to serve citizens through government data continues.

The year of blogging sporadically

tl;dr: Don’t expect many blog posts from me in 2015. Those I do post will be on micro-local issues like Merriweather Park, with a smattering of other stuff of interest mainly to me.

Most everybody else on the HoCo blogging scene has done an “end of 2014/beginning of 2015” post, and I’ll be no different. The automatically-generated report on my 2014 blogging is not that informative, so here’s my personal take on what I did in 2014, blogging-related or otherwise, and what I hope to do in 2015:

Last year I didn’t quite manage a post per week, but even that was over-stated since several months went by with only one or two posts, or even none at all. In 2015 job and (especially) family responsibilities will take up the vast majority of my time, and what spare time I have I’ll likely spend on learning statistics and “data science” via the Johns Hopkins University offerings on Coursera. I have a very small core of readers (perhaps a few dozen at most), and I’m afraid you’ll be lucky to get a post a month from me this year. But enough apologies, here are some things I found interesting or noteworthy in 2014, and hope to blog about in 2015:

Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, and downtown Columbia development in general. It seems like I’ve been writing about the Inner Arbor plan for a long long time, but my first post on it was only a little more than a year ago. Needless to say I was very happy that the Howard County Planning Board approved the site development plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, and if I possibly can I’ll continue posting about its progress in 2015, including a look at the construction of the Chrysalis amphitheater and a discussion of some of the other park features I haven’t written much about. I also hope to continue writing about the renovation and other changes at Merriweather Post Pavilion and about the Crescent development.

Politics, local and otherwise. One of the interesting things in my 2014 blog traffic report is that my 2010 post on the Howard County Democratic Central Committee candidates is still one of the most popular things on the site; apparently there’s a significant demand for more information about these elections from people who are committed partisans but not tied tightly enough into the local party structures to know who’s who. Maybe when the next Central Committee elections come around I’ll think about trying to satisfy that demand.

As for my non-blogging political activities, although his candidacy was ultimately unsuccessful I have no regrets at all about supporting Tom Coale’s run for state delegate using both my blog posts and (much more importantly) my checkbook. Now that financing national elections is primarily the province of billionaires I’ve decided to focus my future political contributions almost solely on local and (to a lesser extent) state races. And fortunately it appears that in future Howard County will continue to have a lot of great candidates to donate to.

In non-local politics, over the years I’ve posted a fair amount on libertarianism and libertarian ideas. This is not because I myself am a libertarian, but rather because I consider libertarianism the 21st century equivalent of socialism: an ideology that appeals to intellectuals and populists alike, that (in my opinion) would be unworkable if taken as a whole, but at the same time has some interesting and potentially useful policy ideas considered in isolation. I have more thoughts on this, and if I have time I’ll put (virtual) pen to paper.

Stuff to watch or read. I’ve done a few posts in the past about anime (i.e., Japanese animated films and TV shows), television shows worth watching, as well as people whose blogs or other writings are worth reading. I hope to do a few more of those from time to time in 2015.

That’s it for now. Happy New Year to all my readers! I hope to be writing to you again soon.

Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods plans approved

tl;dr: I testify in support of the plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods and the Planning Board approves it (note: correlation is not causation), Inner Arbor haters gonna hate, and Brad Canfield of Merriweather shocks me.

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend and testify at the Howard County Planning Board meeting last night at which the Board unanimously approved site development plan SDP-14-073 [PDF] for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, the project otherwise known as the Inner Arbor plan. Here’s a lightly-edited copy of my testimony:

Good evening. I’m speaking in support of SDP-14-073. I previously submitted written testimony to the Board; tonight I want to comment some more on the plan.

I did not closely follow the Board’s consideration of the final development plan, but since then I’ve read the documents relating to its decision. I believe the Board made the right call in putting conditions on its approval of that plan. It’s just common sense: We need a park design that works with the natural landscape rather than against it, and one that’s well integrated with Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Almost a year ago I attended the pre-submission meeting for the Inner Arbor plan. At that time I saw a plan that retained elements present in the final development plan but also fully addressed the Board’s conditions. It featured an extensive pathway system that followed the lay of the land and minimized tree removal, an imaginative alternative to the existing Merriweather fence, and attractive and well-sited shared-use structures.

That design, with some refinements, is in the site development plan you’re considering tonight. It’s a very attractive design, a design that’s much better than I would have expected given the previous history of proposed projects for Symphony Woods.

The design in SDP-14-073 incorporates the elements of the final development plan except for the fountain, which the Inner Arbor Trust now proposes be built on the Merriweather property. I understand the reasons for siting the fountain there as part of the Merriweather/Symphony Woods integration. At the same time I understand why this change might disappoint people for whom constructing a fountain was the primary attraction of the original plan for Symphony Woods.

However I believe that the goal of this multi-year effort is not to put a fountain in Symphony Woods. The fountain is simply one part of an overall effort to provide a “unique cultural and community amenity” for downtown Columbia, to quote from the Board’s previous decision. I believe that SDP-14-073 together with the proposed Merriweather Post Pavilion enhancements will meet that goal. The Board challenged CA to meet the conditions associated with its approval of the final development plan, and create a great park for downtown Columbia. The Inner Arbor Trust has more than met that challenge. I strongly urge the Board to approve SDP-14-073. Thank you.

The Planning Board meeting on November 6 saw proponents of the plan slightly outnumbering opponents;1 in comparison, last night’s meeting was a landslide, with 16 people in favor and three people speaking in opposition. Of course this won’t put a rest to the controversy. In an earlier post I compared Inner Arbor opponents to “Obamacare” opponents in their exploitation of the issue as a way to stoke outrage among their base. I don’t expect the Planning Board’s decision will change that dynamic at all. As with the Affordable Care Act, I’m sure the opposition will continue to pursue any and all means to sabotage the development of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, with yet more contrived legal arguments (thanks go to Bill Woodcock for highlighting the latest example), complaints about the process, accusations of defiling Jim Rouse’s legacy, and dire warnings of a “disaster of biblical proportions”. (I’m only half kidding about the last one; one person testifying last night used language that was almost that extreme.)

However the analogy to the Affordable Care Act fails in a major way: We’re not talking here about a complicated government program where it’s almost comically easy to raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt among those who haven’t closely followed the issue. It’s a park, with pictures (lots and lots of pictures [187MB PDF]). It’s pretty easy to understand, and you either like it or you don’t. As it happens, all of the members of the general public I’ve talked to (for example, at Wine in the Woods) have liked it a lot. Now that the plan is approved and construction on phase 1 can start, more people will be able to see for themselves what Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods is all about, and I think we’ll find that that experience is repeated.

Finally, before this next phase of the Inner Arbor project begins and Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods starts to take shape, some (I hope) last comments on what went on before. In my year of blogging about the Inner Arbor plan and the associated controversy I have been variously enlightened, delighted, amused, critical, and indignant. However I have never been shocked until last night, while listening to the testimony of Brad Canfield, director of operations at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Assuming I’m correctly recollecting his remarks, in talking about the integration of Merriweather and Symphony Woods he mentioned that Cy Paumier and the original design team had never taken the time to talk to people at Merriweather, except for one phone call a few months after the Columbia Association had rejected the original park design in favor of the Inner Arbor concept.

I quite honestly find that to be mind-boggling. On the one hand you have Merriweather Post Pavilion, the most well-known and best-loved feature of Columbia to the world at large, and a key element in making Howard County an attractive place for businesses and residents. (I believe it was Dick Story who last night noted that while other jurisdictions promoting economic development have universities to help them stand out from the crowd, Howard County has Merriweather.) On the other hand you have Symphony Woods, a largely under-used property whose main function over the past 40+ years has been to serve as a surrounding environment and gateway to Merriweather. If a design team working on a plan for Symphony Woods seemingly doesn’t show any interest whatsoever in working with the Merriweather Post Pavilion operators to figure out ways they could mutually enhance the combination of properties, that speaks volumes to me about that team’s insularity, misplaced priorities, and inability to create a design worthy of what downtown Columbia could become.

Thank goodness there were other people more in touch with the realities of present-day Columbia and Howard County, people who were willing to go out of their way to imagine a better future for Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods, and did the work and took the risks to start us on a path to making that future a reality. Thank you, everyone, I’m excited to see where we go from here.


1. The numbers were a bit off because some people nominally listed as opposing the plan didn’t actually speak about the plan itself, but instead complained about various aspects of how the plan came to be (for example, that CA didn’t put the design out to competitive bid).

I support the plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods

tl;dr: Dear Planning Board: I support SDP-14-073, the site development plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, and you should too. (signed) Frank

As previously noted by Bill Woodcock and Julia McCready, tonight (Thursday, November 6 at 7 pm) is the meeting [PDF] of the Howard County Planning Board to consider (among other things) SDP-14-073, the site development plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, otherwise known as the Inner Arbor plan, as submitted by the Inner Arbor Trust. I hope to be able to be at the meeting to express my support of the plan, but just in case I’m not able to do that I also submitted written testimony to the Planning Board earlier today, as follows:

To the members of the Howard County Planning Board:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on SDP-14-073, the site development plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. As a longtime independent observer of the work of the Inner Arbor Trust I believe that SDP-14-073 provides a complete and detailed blueprint for a beautiful and functional cultural park. This blueprint more than fulfills the vision and requirements laid out in the Downtown Columbia Plan and the neighborhood design guidelines. In particular SDP-14-073 represents a considerable advance over the final development plan FDP-DC-MSW-1 previously reviewed by the Planning Board. The plan respects the natural landscape of the site and its status as a special place within downtown Columbia, and the various park features display a consistent degree of design excellence, as attested to by the unanimous approval of the Design Advisory Panel and the comments made by its members.

With respect to the conditions put on approval of FDP-DC-MSW-1 by the Planning Board, SDP- 14-073 meets not only the letter of those conditions but their spirit as well. Not only does the plan minimize tree removal through careful siting of the various park features, it provides an extensive system of meandering paths on which visitors can fully enjoy the natural setting of those features. In sum, the plan works with the landscape, not against it.

SDP-14-073 also shows the result of the requested coordination regarding integration of the park and its features with Merriweather Post Pavilion, making the overall Merriweather-Symphony Woods neighborhood the “unique cultural and community amenity” referred to in the previous Planning Board decision. The Chrysalis shared-use amphitheater proposed for Phase 1 will provide a suitable second venue to Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Butterfly guest services building is well-sited to serve visitors to both the pavilion and the Chrysalis (and displays an architectural excellence not found in the existing Merriweather outbuildings), and the Caterpillar “living berm” is an imaginative solution to the problem of controlling access to Merriweather Post Pavilion during events while providing access to the pavilion property during other times.

I’ve previously blogged about the parking situation at Merriweather Post Pavilion. [See here and here.] I agree with the DPZ staff that the parking arrangements proposed with SDP-14-073 are adequate for the various uses detailed. Although some may be concerned about increased traffic and parking needs associated with the development of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, those concerns cannot be fully addressed in the context of the park itself, since to a large degree they arise from joint uses with Merriweather Post Pavilion. In that regard I recommend the Planning Board carefully review parking proposals submitted with any development plans for the rest of the Merriweather-Symphony Woods neighborhood and (especially) for the Crescent neighborhood.

In conclusion, I strongly urge the Planning Board to approve SDP-14-073, including both phases 1 and 2 and the subsequent phases 3 through 7, subject to further review as noted. I also urge the Planning Board to adopt the DPZ staff recommendation and allow the access drive from the Merriweather VIP Lot to the Chrysalis amphitheater to extend below the southeastern boundary specified in the final development plan. Among other things, mandating an alternate routing would be inconsistent with the previous Planning Board conditions relating to minimizing tree removal. Finally, I urge the Planning Board to refrain from putting any conditions on the site development plan, now or in the future, where such conditions might compromise the integrity of the park design or otherwise result in the park not fulfilling its promise as a unique and valuable cultural and community amenity for the residents of Columbia and Howard County.

Frank Hecker
Ellicott City, Maryland

Thank you Tom Coale

tl;dr: Tom Coale deserves our thanks for showing us the best aspects of politics, in a world in which we so often see the worst.

Dear Tom,

True to your nature, I see you’ve already blogged about the election results yesterday and given us your thoughts on what was a hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful effort in District 9B. I can’t let your post go without one of my own. I don’t for a moment regret my endorsement of you, and in particular I don’t regret the investment I made in your campaign through my donations. I felt they were an excellent investment in a campaign that by all indications was professionally run, focused on issues that matter to the people of Ellicott City, positive in all its aspects, and (most important) featured a candidate who was tireless in reaching out to his potential constituents, listening to their opinions, and promoting a practical vision for governing.

Please pardon me while I go a bit meta (in my usual way): As you may or may not know, a lot of libertarians and conservatives are enamored of public choice theory and its use of economic theories to explain why politicians behave as they do. Which is fine as far as it goes, but they often go on to use this as a stick with which to beat advocates of government action, claiming that public choice theory conclusively proves that all politicians are motivated only by their own self-interest, and thus can never and will never act so as to promote the public good. This, to be frank, is a crock of crap. It’s simply the flip side of the argument many progressives make, that market failures prove that capitalism doesn’t work as advertised, and ultimately is nothing but selfishness and greed incarnate.

What is true is that both democracy and capitalism work best when practiced by people whose personalities and experiences predispose them to have concerns for others beyond themselves and their “tribes”. Motivated in many ways by self-interest they may be (who would ever run for public office without a fair amount of ambition to provide a spur?), but there are lots of politicians (of all parties) who clearly are moved by a sense of civic duty and genuinely seek to improve the well-being of their constituents (just as there are many businesspeople for whom money is not the be-all and end-all, and who genuinely seek to improve the well-being of their customers). We in Howard County are blessed to have more than our fair share of such politicians, of whom you are one. I appreciate all that you have done for this county thus far, and look forward to seeing the fruits of whatever civic activities you may choose to undertake in the future. Thank you again, and the best of luck in your post-campaign life.

Your supporter and fellow blogger,

Frank

Making Howard County government data of value to us all

tl;dr: Before Howard County’s next county executive goes off on a high-profile “open government data” initiative, they (and we) should think more about what such a project can and can’t do, and how best to make it successful.

Among their other policy proposals, both candidates for Howard County Executive have proposed new initiatives to make data about the workings of county government more available to residents. Allan Kittleman has promoted what he calls “HoCoStat”, a “platform to hold government accountable” that “will link data to long-term impacts” and “measure … response and process times for various government functions.” Courtney Watson’s corresponding initiative doesn’t have a catchy name, but her “open government” vision includes a promise to “leverage technology to improve and maintain government transparency, efficiency and communication” by creating “an intuitive and interactive web portal that provides public access to information in usable and searchable formats”.

As someone who’s written my share of data-heavy blog posts you might expect that I’d be wildly cheering these plans on from the sidelines. However as someone who’s also seen my share of technology hype cycles, of which “big data” is only the latest, I also feel compelled to throw a little cold water on at least some aspects of these proposals. To be specific:

Yes, open government, big data, and related topics are hot and sexy. But in the end the goal of Howard County government is to making Howard County a better place to live for its residents. In that respect providing access to government data (and in particular building high-profile web portals, dashboards, and so on, to display that data) is a means, not an end. This applies more generally to accountability, transparency, and all those other nice things candidates are promising and activists are demanding. We shouldn’t confuse process with products: Transparency is nice, but transparency in and of itself is arguably useless.

Second, as James Howard noted in a recent post, Howard County isn’t really big enough for big data. To take but one example, systems like those created in New York City, Baltimore, and so on, are often touted as enabling better law enforcement, for example by identifying detailed geographic patterns in particular types of crimes. But those large cities have lots of crimes, enough that any patterns in the data stand a good chance of being significant. Given the generally small number of crimes in Howard County, it’s quite possible that a lot of the patterns in county crime data simply represent statistical noise and don’t add a lot of information beyond what Howard County police already know based on their lived experience. That’s certainly true for very low-frequency crimes like murder. In 2013 there were only four homicides in Howard County, and I personally knew three of the victims. Is there any significance to that fact? None whatsoever—it’s simply random coincidence at work.

Next, data without context is not that useful, and may be actively harmful. A good example is school test scores. As Julia McCready recently pointed out, it’s unclear that school test scores are actually useful for identifying “good” schools versus “bad” schools. It’s quite possible that test scores for a given school are simply reflecting the characteristics of the students who go to that school, and not whether that school is better than others in educating students. A system that doesn’t provide context for data is a system whose data is likely to be misinterpreted and misused.

Related to the previous point, data without (policy) experimentation is also not all that useful. Data in and of itself isn’t necessarily that informative about what policies should be implemented, because it doesn’t necessarily indicate which underlying factors are driving the results we see, and how we migh achieve better results. Determining that typically requires actually making some policy changes to see what happens, and doing so in a controlled manner that permits some statistically valid conclusions to be drawn. (See for example Jim Manzi’s book Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society.) But making policy changes is hard enough in the first place; doing randomized controlled trials of different policy options (especially when one option in a proper trial is “do nothing”) is even more difficult. (It’s the same phenomenon as with drug trials: No one wants to be in the group taking the placebo.)

Finally, all the data in the world won’t necessarily change people’s minds about what policies to adopt. People of all political persuasions are quite capable of holding on to their opinions and political positions no matter what the data indicates (and note that I myself can be as susceptible to this as anyone). Smart people in particular (the kind of people who like to visit data portals and are arguing for their creation) are really good at finding reasons to doubt what the data appears to be telling us. So if in the end we switch from arguing about policies to arguing about data and methodologies, have we really achieved anything?

Despite all I’ve written above I’m not a total skeptic about the possibility of Howard County doing more to provide access to government data. I’d just like the county government and in particular the new County Executive to embark on this task with a proper sense of humility. In particular I have the following recommendations:

First, start simple, start small, underpromise and over deliver. Do we really need to spend potentially millions of taxpayer dollars on a high-profile system that’s at a relatively high risk of failing to meet its goals? Why not incrementally extend existing efforts? For example, there’s already a site data.howardcountymd.gov. Does anyone use it? If not, why not? Could this site be relatively inexpensively improved to make it more valuable and attractive to Howard County residents? Could data already provided by other county agencies be consolidated onto this existing site?

Next, for many if not most cases I suggest that the county provide only data, and let the private and nonprofit sector add value to it. A lot of the data generated by Howard County government is of interest to relatively small groups of people. Why bother spending a lot of time and money creating a fancy data portal just for those groups? Just give them the raw data, in as simple a form as possible, for example as so-called “comma-separated values” or CSV-formatted files that can be loaded into any desktop spreadsheet program or open source statistical package. Then let those groups decide how best to analyze the data and prepare it for public dissemination. If the county wants to do more, “teach people to fish”: work with the Howard County Library System, Howard Community College, and local volunteers to organize classes for businesses, nonprofit organizations, and local activists in how to use common “data science” tools and how to build data-driven web sites.

If the county does want to provide its own system, please, please, please don’t do so under an arrangement that gives an outside contractor a measure of control over the data, how it’s distributed, and what can be done with it. If the county releases data then that data should be available to everyone, in a form everyone can use, and for whatever purposes people want to make use of it.

Related to the previous point, treat providing data to the public as a core government function, to be budgeted as such, and not as an adjunct task for which an agency needs to pursue “cost recovery” or even (heaven forbid) tries to make a profit center. It is not the business of government to be “in business”, especially in an era when the marginal cost of disseminating raw data products via the Internet is so low. Budget for collecting the data and preparing it for public release at no charge, not for implementing complicated schemes by which access to data can be controlled and sold.

Government data ultimately belongs to all of us, a public resource for all to use, and government itself is not necessarily best equipped to analyze, present, and build on that data. Let’s have Howard County government data be made available to all in a way that makes the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars and leverages the creative energies of the multitude of organizations and individuals in the private and civic sectors. I think that’s an approach that anyone can get behind, no matter their political affiliation.