By Megan Poinski
The entire State House complex will provide free public wi-fi access starting with the 2012 legislative session.
The Joint Advisory Committee on Legislative Data Systems unanimously approved a measure on Wednesday to allow the public to access the Internet for free from all meeting rooms and office areas throughout the complex.
“We’re turning the whole place into Starbucks, minus the coffee,” said Del. Kumar Barve, the House chairman of the committee.
The committee also supported a recommendation to redesign the General Assembly website which has changed little in the last decade.
$30,000 wi-fi project
Currently, General Assembly members can get onto the campus wi-fi using the laptops issued to them. With just a little more extra equipment, that access stream can be opened up to the general public with wi-fi capability, said Michael Gaudiello, director of Information Systems for the legislature.
Purchase and installation of the equipment to open up the wi-fi stream will cost about $30,000, said Gaudiello. The public would use the existing service available at the State House, so there would be no additional cost there. Gaudiello said the equipment will have a life span of about 30 years.
“We do think it’s a service that would be beneficial to users,” Gaudiello said.
The internet service would be the most useful to people coming to the State House to testify on a bill, or who want to speak to legislators about specific issues, Gaudiello said. He stressed that it would only allow public access to the Internet, not to the General Assembly’s internal network of files and information.
He anticipated that the service would be similar to what hotel guests or coffee shop customers use. Basically, a customer with wi-fi capability on a laptop who opens up a web browser is directed to a website where they are asked to accept agreements affirming that they will use the wi-fi respectfully, with no intention to hack into files or spread viruses. If a user accepts the agreement, he or she would be given Internet access.
UPDATE: Gaudiello said that the press rooms on the ground floor of the State House should not rely on the free wi-fi. He said there may be wireless downstairs, but what we already have will be the “most reliable.”
Committee members also discussed several other issues of public access to legislative information. Sen. Rich Madaleno, D-Montgomery, a committee member who was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting, sent a list of several suggestions to improve the General Assembly’s use of technology to be open and transparent to the public.
Revamping the website
One suggestion that was fully embraced was redesigning the General Assembly’s website, a project that Gaudiello said he could have completed by the 2013 session. While he said the content of the website is useful, and comprehensive, the site’s organization and design makes it difficult for the public to use.
Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s, on the committee agreed. He said that legislators, staff and lobbyists all force themselves to learn how to find things on the site because their jobs depend on it. Journalists and members of the public, on the other hand, use the site less often. They are used to websites that are much easier to use, he said, making the General Assembly’s site seem all the more confusing. He says he understands the transparency aspect of the website, and is glad that it contains so much information that the public can access.
“But the way it is now, it feels like we don’t want people to be able to find information,” Rosapepe said.
Gaudiello said that people are at the very least trying to use the site to find information. Nearing the close of this year’s General Assembly session, there were about 1 million hits on the site each day.
Nevertheless, he said, access to information on the site is difficult and somewhat outdated. The office of information systems has been looking at other state legislature websites – specifically Tennessee and Washington – for ideas on improving Maryland’s site organization.
The project will most likely be done by Gaudiello’s office, not farmed out to a college or university to rebuild as part of a project. There are important timing issues for legislative records, Gaudiello said, and his staff is well versed in how those work.
Gaudiello said he will also be getting public feedback as the project is being done to determine if the new design is actually easier to use.