Md. Legal Code Gets Third-Party User-Friendly Online Makeover

By Becca Heller,

OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft. The nonprofit, nonpartisan designed a website that improves the information and search engine friendliness of the Maryland Code of law portion of the state's newly redesigned Web site.
OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft. The nonprofit, nonpartisan designed a website that improves the information and search engine friendliness of the Maryland Code of law portion of the state's newly redesigned Web site.
ANNAPOLIS—The OpenGov Foundation just released, a user-friendly, searchable and downloadable publication of the Maryland Code of law. The project unpacks the dense, inaccessible code on the state website and encourages citizen participation through transparency.

“The state site is a good start, but it’s not intuitive, and it’s locked in PDF so you can’t do anything with the data,” explained OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft. “We spent the last six to eight weeks really reworking the Maryland code data into a form that is useful to both coders and everyday people.”

One of the primary goals for this project was to make it as user-friendly as possible. Every element of the site — from the search function to the “human friendly section title” — is designed to simplify the intimidating prospect of the state code and engage people in a political conversation, he said.

Site makes Maryland Code more searchable

The new site’s search engine, when compared to the state website, brought back twice as many results for a given search term, providing the user not only with more results, but also with more “human” summaries for each search result, a factor that is much lacking in the state site, according to Kraft.

“All Americans deserve open and uncomplicated access to the law. In 2013, that means not just the ability to read the law like a human being, but to tap into it without restriction and with as few barriers as possible,” said Kraft in a press release. “Everyone should have the chance to be a hands-on contributor in our country. Now more than ever, the tools and the desire to make that happen are literally at our fingertips. Quality data is far too often the missing piece.”

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government, echoed Kraft’s sentiments, pointing out how much new technology can impact political engagement.

“New technology is changing the world,” Ferguson said. “It’s changing the way we interact as individuals; it’s changing the way we consume information; and it’s changing the way we govern. As information becomes more and more accessible, it’s making it easier for people to engage with their government.”

Code will turn up on search engines

One of the most important elements of the new site is that it makes the Maryland Code entirely accessible to search engines. In its PDF form on the state site, all the data was invisible to search engines, making it much less available to the everyday person.

“Google doesn’t like — and that’s to put it lightly — PDF files,” Kraft explained. “What we’ve done is we’ve made this information discoverable to Google. With this new site, a [person] has a vastly higher chance of finding what he’s looking for on search engines.”

Inspired by and modeled after a successful transparency effort first carried out in Virginia, the project provides a foundation for a flexible and evolving platform for Maryland state law.

“This is the bedrock of Maryland government,” said Kraft. “All of the stuff that happens in Maryland legislation is here. So if you want to build in tools it always has to start philosophically, but also technically with the data.”

Ferguson was excited about the project and the groundwork it lays for future transparency efforts.

“OpenGov itself may or may not be the spark plug, but what it does is it lays the foundation for others out in the technology world to explore new ways to exchange ideas and expand transparency,” Ferguson said.

More projects coming

According to Kraft, OpenGov plans to expand on the newly released site by developing a state-specific Madison Project, an open source software initiative seeking to give constituents more voice within the lawmaking process.

“We’re in here for the long haul and we start here,” he said. “We’re really ramping up for a Maryland Madison Project release in the coming months.”

OpenGov Foundation, which first made it big with its initial release of the Madison Project, is dedicated to developing technology to expand political transparency and make information more accessible to the people. Though nonpartisan and nonprofit, the organization caught the eye of California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who is listed as co-founder on the website. Issa is most prominent as the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“Our supporters at the start were mostly progressive,” said Kraft. “Then after the Madison Project, Darrell Issa started contacting us. I remember thinking — oh my gosh if Darrell Issa’s crew is willing to support us [despite our liberal support base], we must have hit on something pretty good for democracy.”

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