Transparency Score Spurs Data Innovation

  • Maryland’s Department of Information Technology and Department of Budget and Management collaborate to scope new transparency portal.
  • Maryland Transparency Portal features seven searchable apps powered by Socrata Open Finance.
  • Team built an ETL process to validate data from a cleanliness standpoint, which covered four years of budget information.
  • Maryland enhanced its data program by moving to enable internal data sharing with Socrata Connected Government Cloud.

Information is only as useful as it is accessible.

That’s a principle officials in Maryland have spent years maintaining. From adopting open data bylaws in 2015 to launching a modern data platform five years later to connect disparate systems across the state, Maryland is committed to making data more useful, both for employees and the public.

Patrick McLoughlin, director of business intelligence within the Maryland Department of Information Technology (DoIT), said the state operates on the expectation that “we’re going to do our best to make data available and as transparent as possible.”

The goal is for any question to be answered within three clicks. However, finding answers wasn’t always as simple or user-friendly as it could be.

Scoping the Portal

In the 2018 review of Maryland’s existing vendor payment site by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the evaluation criteria emphasized several user-friendly features not present in the state’s current system, such as the ability to drill down into the data to identify spending by agencies on categories such as motor fuel and legal services. Using the Maryland Transparency Portal, all of that information— and more—is just a few clicks away.

When U.S. Public Interest Research Group graded Maryland’s vendor payment site a D+, officials wanted to act swiftly to address those gaps and overhaul the state’s open data and financial transparency portals. They wanted an app that gave a user-friendly ability to drill-down into agency spending data within a few clicks to see where tax dollars are going.

However, taking data from one system and incorporating it with another is a challenge. Data is often messy, it’s not formatted uniformly, and common lingo to one team may not make sense to another, let alone public users.

That’s where McLoughlin’s team could help.

In March 2019, Maryland launched the Socrata Connected Government Cloud solution, an internal data-sharing platform which includes public-facing open data apps, Open Performance and Open Finance.

Soon after, a collaborative partnership arose between the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Department of Information Technology (DoIT). DBM provided the expertise around the budget and its associated programs and nuances, while DoIT provided the technical resources and data governance structure.

They built a prototype on Socrata to show DBM what was possible, and, he said, “they liked what they saw.”

“Once we got through that first meeting, it very quickly evolved,” McLoughlin said.

Questions snowballed from whether they could identify the funding sources, show what revenue around programs (such as the cigarette or tax gas) funded, show how many employees were tied to the programs, what grants and loans were funding, and whether the data was available in the first place.

Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good.’ Start with something and build on it, and don’t ever consider it to be complete. It will improve and change and require maintenance and enhancements and additional efforts. See where the data takes you and ask those additional questions. At the very least it will require you to generate or acquire more data to answer those questions.

Patrick McLoughlin

Director of Business Intelligence, Maryland Department of Information Technology

“Quickly it turned from a single dashboard to seven configurable apps showing four years of data wrapped up in a single search environment on the Socrata Open Finance app,” McLoughlin said. “And that’s how it became this portal rather than a single report or dashboard.”

Go Big or Go Home

The ultimate goal from the outset of this project was to provide a centralized place for information that internal and public users could easily use.

The team at DoIT set out to first make sure the data was formatted appropriately. From there, they built out some ETL processes – short for extract, transform, load — to validate the data and take it from its native format as a .csv file into one that integrates with the state’s central data platform, powered by Socrata. They had to build out additional fields so the data could match the schema, and then the team needed to provide more narrative and searchable context, such as removing codes and introducing full names of agencies and programs.

“We had to do quite a bit of analysis from the data itself because of the way the state services are provided,” McLoughlin said. “One agency may be generally funded for a particular service, but that service may be then provided to other agencies throughout the state, so it winds up being a reimbursable fund.”

This is where DBM’s expertise was crucial. The team is intimately involved in how the budget is developed and how programs are built out. They could easily identify where double counting may occur or where clarification was necessary.

The state needed to classify information to ensure numbers weren’t double-counted, as well as to clarify when an agency provides services to another agency, and how funds travel from agency to agency. McLoughlin denotes those details with annotations in the portal.

“Some of the challenges were having to work with data at different scales, and at some cases we had to come to the realization that they have to be treated as separate applications,” McLoughlin said. “It was all agreed upon pretty easily, but the different data structures proved to be a challenge at times.”

From the outset, everyone was clear that this is going to evolve over time. The intention is that it will get better and better. As questions come up, we’ll strive to answer them with existing data or get new data.

Patrick McLoughlin

Director of Business Intelligence, Maryland Department of Information Technology

A Winning Combo

Two weeks after the Maryland Transparency Portal went live, more agencies are asking to join; for example, the capital budget team reached out about getting their data uploaded.

“From the outset, everyone was clear that this is going to evolve over time,” McLoughlin said. “The intention is that it will get better and better. As questions come up, we’ll strive to answer them with existing data or get new data.”

Now that the new transparency portal is live, McLoughlin encourages other government organizations to take up the task, too.

“Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good,’” McLoughlin said. “Start with something and build on it, and don’t ever consider it to be complete. It will improve and change and require maintenance and enhancements and additional efforts. See where the data takes you and ask those additional questions. At the very least it will require you to generate or acquire more data to answer those questions.”

Case Study Highlights

  • Created seven searchable apps within a central portal
  • Built an ETL process to validate data from a cleanliness standpoint
  • Portal includes four years of budget information

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