OpenGov Year In Review: Baltimore Edition

Following up on my previous post for the City of Philadelphia, this post describes what happened on the open government and open data fronts in the City of Baltimore in 2011.OpenBaltimore Launches

The open data movement in Baltimore officially began with the unveiling of the OpenBaltimore data repository in January, 2011.

Running on the Socrata platform, OpenBaltimore launched to great excitement in the Baltimore technology community, many of whom had been advocating for a civic hacking event in the city for some time.

In the span of just a few weeks, Baltimore seemed to go from zero to 100 on open data.  The SODA API built into the OpenBaltimore platform seemed to dovetail perfectly with requests from the developer community for Baltimore City to give them the raw materials to build civic apps.

Civic hacking soon ensued.

Civic Hacking

In February, the very first civic hacking event took place in Baltimore.  This wasn’t the first hacking event to take place in Charm City, but it was the first to happen after the City published open data sets for developers to build civic apps with.  And that’s exactly what they did.

In early February, software developers, journalists and civic activists converged on the Emerging Technologies Center in Baltimore’s Canton Neighborhood to build civic apps.  One of the great things about this event (in addition to the visible enthusiasm of the developers that attended) was the fact that Socrata had their lead developer evangelist on site, working along side the Baltimore developers to use the City’s new open data platform.

This event would set the tone for much of the civic hacking that was to take place in Baltimore for the remainder of the year.

Later in the year, a second civic hacking event would take place at Digital Harbor High School in the City’s Federal Hill neighborhood.  This highly successful event – Education Hack Day – was focused on the needs of teachers and schools, and brought educators and technologists together for a successful weekend of app building.  This event was recognized as a runner up for “Best Civic Hackathon” in the recent GovFresh Awards contest.

The Search for an OpenGov Champion

The OpenBaltimore site was launched at something of an odd time as it relates to Baltimore City government and politics.

The City actually decided to build an open data portal before the man that would become the City’s CIO (Rico Singleton) was in his current position.  The very real potential existed for the OpenBaltimore project to be lost in the shuffle as the incoming CIO asserted his new authority and lined up resource to execute his own priorities.

In addition,  2011 was an election year in Baltimore, with the sitting Mayor (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the former City Council President who took over the office when her predecessor resigned amid a scandal) running for a full term.  There was speculation in the technology community that the launch of OpenBaltimore was nothing more than a political ploy – a hollow nod to the calls from local developers for open data and a good way to shore up the Rawlings-Blake Administration’s record on transparency.

Mayoral elections can wreak havoc on open data programs.  Civic activists in Baltimore needed only to look a few miles to the south – to the District of Columbia – to see the dramatic change that a mayoral election can have on the direction of a municipal open data program.  The District – once a pioneer in the open government movement – has fallen almost completely off the OpenGov radar following the defeat of former Mayor Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary in September of  2010.

Real questions about Baltimore City’s commitment to open data were raised leading up to the Baltimore Mayoral primary.  I myself had a chance to weigh in on this issue – ultimately, I felt that the City’s commitment to open data was genuine and that there was great potential for civic engagement and change.

One of the most interesting and valuable events of the year served as a vehicle for addressing many of these concerns and fostering an open discussion between the technology community and the Baltimore City CIO.

Dubbed, “BmoreSmart Meets City Hall,” the event was organized by Kate Baldow and brought dozens of interested parties to Baltimore City Hall to engage in a dialog with CIO Rico Singleton.  A frank, honest and open discussion took place and those that attended learned a lot about the challenges that face Baltimore and the plans for the future of open data.

Coming Full Circle on 311

Baltimore was the first city in the US to use the 311 designated dialing code and a centralized call center to field citizen requests on non-emergency issues.  So it was fitting that in 2011 Baltimore joined the ranks of cities to deploy an Open311 API.

In connection with this announcement, Baltimore also launched 311 apps for the iPhone and Android, and launched a Twitter account for tracking 311 service requests.

Baltimore’s embrace of Open311 looks like it will be one of the most productive avenues for engaging developers to build civic apps to help the city.  It would be great to see some outreach in this area in 2012.

The Road Ahead in 2012

In the past several weeks, Baltimore City CIO Rico Singleton has been on a tear – releasing scores of new data sets to the OpenBaltimore platform.  He’s hired a Chief Digital Officer for Baltimore and conducted the interview via live video stream, with questions for each of the candidates solicited from the local tech community via Twitter.

The deep pool of talented people in Baltimore that want to use city data to build useful civic apps was evident in some truly innovative projects that developed through the course of the year.

Following the Civic Hack Day in February, Shea Frederick began work on what would become SpotAgent – an app that uses data from OpenBaltimore to find safe parking in the city. Beyond just being a great app, and a great example for municipal officials of what can be done with city data, Shea’s work highlighted an important issue for OpenBaltimore – the frequency of data updates.  With Shea’s strategic prodding, the city began a pilot project to update parking violations (and other data sets) much more frequently, making them more valuable for everyone.

Shea teamed up with other talented Baltimore developers Jonathan Julian and James Schaffer for Baltimore Vacants – a project to provide more usable information on who owns vacant properties in Baltimore.  Jonathan was also one of the stars of the Education Hack Day in Baltimore (his team won first prize) and he blogged about his experience at the event to encourage others to take up civic hacking.

Another vacant property project was taken on this year by Mike Subelsky, a talented developer who announced several weeks ago that he wanted to take on a “free software project” as both a way to learn new skills and to kick start a viable project.  Mike ended up working with Kate Bladow and Baltimore Slumlord Watch on a project to identify who owns vacant properties.  Mike was gracious enough to not only work on the project, and to publish all the great data he was able to pull together, but also to write a detailed blog post about the experience.  Mike’s post is worth the read for those interested in the value of open data.

If the City of Baltimore fully commits to engaging this smart, talented community of developers and civic activists in 2012 it will be a banner year for the open government movement in Charm City.

Open Gov Champions for 2011

Baltimore’s community of civic-minded hackers is deeper than most cities, so the following is by no means an exhaustive list of those who have contributed to the open government movement in that city.  But as I said previously with the list I put together for Philadelphia, when I think about the open government movement in Baltimore it is hard to imagine how it would work without these people.

Mike Brenner.  Mike is a tireless advocate for open government and open data.  He was the very first person I ever became aware of calling for civic hacking events in Baltimore, and he was the primary organizer for both of the events that took in Baltimore this year.  Like others in the Baltimore technology community, Mike has heard the siren call of the Big Apple and Silicon Valley and he’d be a huge success in either place.  But he’s a Baltimorean at heart and he cares deeply about his city.  Every city should be so lucky as to have someone like Mike Brenner working to make things better.

Dave Troy. Dave is a successful entrepreneur whose been around the block more than once. Like so many others in the Baltimore technology community, he cares passionately about his city and wants to make it work better and smarter through the innovative use of technology. Dave’s idea to use LinkedIn data to visualize the relationships between people in the Baltimore community was one of the most interesting and creative uses of data that I saw all year. Dave’s leadership will hep propel the open government movement in Baltimore forward in 2012.

Rico Singleton. He’s got a lot on his plate – outdated technology infrastructure, budget woes and more projects than you can shake a stick at – but everything I saw from Baltimore’s CIO this year tells me he’s in the OpenGov game to win it.  There are certainly enough challenges in Baltimore to justify putting OpenBaltimore on the back burner, but Rico continues to push things forward with the release of new data sets and the constant improvement of the OpenBaltimore site.

OpenGov Year In Review: Baltimore Edition

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