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State offers online open source data trove (O’Malley style)

May 13, 2013

cp_20130508_power5The Maryland state government quietly announced its brand-new online open source data trove last Wednesday.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (last seen burying his head in the sand over corruption in state prisons) called the portal “a movement away from ideological, hierarchical, bureaucratic governing and toward information-age governing that is fundamentally entrepreneurial, collaborative, relentlessly interactive and performance driven.”

O’Malley talks a mighty good game on the stump. As always, watch what he does.

The State Integrity Project was recently unimpressed with Maryland’s access to public records, giving the state an F on that score while ranking us 40th among states in terms of corruption risk.

That was just a survey, though. People were asked if data was available and if the access to the information was “effective.” The best way to see what’s available and its potential effectiveness is to visit the new site for a test drive. This we did.

We give it an F too.

Like many O’Malley initiatives, it looks impressive at first glance. There are more than 200 “data sets” available through the website, and you can list them in order by several different criteria, including “relevance” “most accessed” “alphabetical” and “most recently updated.” Sounds good, right?

Here’s the thing: Like many O’Malley initiatives, it starts to suck eggs as soon as you examine it in detail. Ask it for “most accessed” this year and the top thing returned is the last thing you yourself accessed. In our case it was “Maryland Acute Care Hospitals Reporting into ESSENCE Biosurveillance System,” which we had clicked at random two minutes before. Seventy others had accessed this “data” as well, according to the site. The data set consists of a single map listing hospitals reporting to the Essence Biosurveillance system.

And what might that be? We hit the “about” button to find out. Under the “description” tab there was nothing at all (Google brings us this 9-year-old primer.  Commence paranoia in five…four…three…)

No comments either. And that’s interesting, because this was still the top thing returned when we asked the main page to list all the items by “most commented.”

Nothing about the list changed until we asked for an alphabetical listing. The top thing then? State handgun permit summary. It’s only through June of 2012, so the data is a year late. Worse, it shows zero permit applications from July-December, giving the impression (certainly false) that Maryland residents suddenly totally stopped wanting guns last summer. The description is actively misleading: “Handgun Permit Activity by month for 2012, with yearly totals for 2010 – 2012.”

We could probably spend all day here finding bogus and misleading data. We could, that is, if we didn’t have potentially more relevant things to do. This appears designed to frustrate and waste the time of would-be government watchdogs.

Maryland’s state data portal may not be entirely useless. If you know what data you’re seeking and know what it’s named in this interface, you might be able to unearth something useful. City Paper hereby encourages you, readers, to have at it.