MarylandCode.org – Free Law for the Free State

MarylandCode.org – Free Law for the Free State
The OpenGov Foundation today released MarylandCode.org, the first-ever people-friendly, tech-savvy and restriction-free publication of the Maryland Code of Public laws.  The people of Maryland and all Americans have a fundamental right to know the law, so that they can understand it, debate it and meaningfully participate in democratic decision-making.  Today, delivering that right to know means delivering user-friendly, open and restriction-free civic data – from city and state codes to legislation and legal opinions. MarylandCode.org is a $0-cost step towards the public data environment citizens and state officials deserve.
 
“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 OpenGov Executive Director Seamus Kraft.  “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.”MarylandCode.org helps address this data deficit.  It extends the unheralded labors of the many Maryland citizens – from teachers to technologists – who have passed on the law and the fundamental freedoms it secures.  James Madison had it right: ‘The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.’”

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).”

While well-intentioned reasons for some of these legal barriers may exist, so do the free software tools required to deliver better, restriction-free and increased access to not only the Maryland Code of Public Laws, but to as much government information as possible in every city and state across America.

Who Are the Heroes?

Hero #1 - MarylandCode.org proudly stands on the shoulders of the open-source software developer geniuses behind The State DecodedWaldo 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.

“Laws are the fundament of civil society, and no laws are more important to our day-to-day life than state laws,” said Jaquith upon release of MarylandCode.org.  “It’s important that Maryland’s laws be available without cost, in a format that is both easy to understand and as accessible as possible. MarylandCode.org is a brilliant new resource for the people of Maryland, providing a keystone resource for the open government movement and making it possible for a host of new services to build on this rich source of government data. I’m thrilled to seeMarylandCode.org join The State Decoded software family as we work towards making state laws available for the entire nation.”
Heroes #2 - Special thanks to the terrific public servants in the Maryland Department of Legislative Services This Bud’s for you.

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:

●     OpenBaltimore - spearheaded by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and built off the award-winning work of then-Mayor Martin O’Malley - is “an effort that supports government transparency, openness and innovative uses that will help improve the lives of Baltimore residents, visitors and businesses through use of technology. OpenBaltimore will enable the local developer community to develop applications that will hopefully help the city solve problems,” according to their website.
●     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.”
MarylandCode.org Geek-Speak Glossary & FAQ

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 OfficeApple iWorkLibre 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.

Why Maryland?
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.