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.