Month: August 2011

Cleaning up the neighborhood: A San Francisco case study

What if you could make litter, graffiti, and other problems in your neighborhood go away just by using your phone?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s actually possible. One of the most popular uses of Blockboard is our “Cityfix” category, which lets neighbors use their iPhone to report issues that require the city’s attention. This includes everything from graffiti and litter to potholes and sewer problems. Blockboard users can report these issues in under a minute: you just snap a photo, indicate your location on a map and choose a category.

Blockboard packages up that information and automatically sends it to San Francisco’s 311 Customer Service Center (using their implementation of the Open311 standard). This puts the issue into the city’s tracking system, and that means a human being is likely to do something about it.

To get a clearer sense of how well the city’s process is actually working, we did an analysis of issues reported during our recent beta test in the Mission District.

Our findings paint an encouraging picture. Even in this era of limited budgets and manpower, the city manages to address most citizen-reported issues in a timely manner. There is just one notable hole, and the story behind it is an interesting one. But overall we think the city deserves credit for delivering on its commitments.

Resolution rates

Out of a sample of 100 city issues reported in the Mission over a two-month period using the Blockboard app, we found that 65 were resolved by the city, within an average of 3.6 days. As of this writing, 35 issues remained unresolved. On the surface a 65% resolution rate doesn’t sound great, but let’s dig a little deeper.

The following chart breaks down reported issues by category. While these categories do not precisely match those used by the city, we use them in Blockboard because we believe they are easier for citizens to understand and navigate.

As you can see, issues related to litter and trash are by far the most common, and the city resolves the vast majority of them (over 96%).

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies graffiti and vandalism. While these constitute the second most common set of issues reported by Blockboard users, they have a very poor resolution rate — just 12%. (Street issues — such as potholes — turn in a similarly poor showing, but there are far fewer of them in comparison.)

Time to resolution

The picture is also interesting when sliced by time. Here is the average time-to-resolution for each category:

Most categories of issues are resolved within 1-3 days — a fairly impressive track record in our opinion. But here again we find that graffiti and vandalism really stands out. With an average time-to-resolution of over 23 days, even the few issues that are lucky enough to be resolved take a while to get there.

So why is graffiti so problematic for the city?

A little research reveals that while the city can take immediate action by painting over graffiti on public or city property (for example, parking meters or city buildings) things get complicated when it comes to graffiti on private property. In such cases, the city’s graffiti abatement law (Article 23 of the San Francisco Public Works Code) determines what happens next.

Enacted in 2004 as part of a renewed campaign to discourage graffiti across the city, the law says that it is the owner’s responsibility to clean up graffiti on their property. Once the city has been notified, it sends out an inspector to confirm the report. The city then notifies the owner, who then has 30 days to “abate” the graffiti (i.e. paint over it). If the owner does not comply, additional warnings and then fines may apply. If the owner prefers, they can grant the city permission to take care of the problem on their behalf, but without this permission the city can’t take action until much later on.

This entire process can take a great deal of time and appears to be the cause of the low (and slow) resolution rates we’ve observed. We plan to track these issues over a longer time period in order to better understand the true rate of resolution.

If we set aside graffiti-related issues, the city’s resolution rate is 83%. Our analysis shows that the city is generally responsive to citizen complaints, within the scope of its legal abilities.


Finally, we’ll leave you with one more juicy piece of data. Below is a heatmap (created with OpenHeatMap) showing geographic clustering of issues reported in the Mission. You’ll notice some “hotspots” along Valencia between roughly 18th and 21st, as well as 22nd and Shotwell, and the area around 16th and Mission. It would be interesting to correlate this with other sources such as crime or demographics. If you’re reading this and have ideas, please free free to reach out!

Open government hackathons matter

Open government hackathons matter

The civic hackathon – a gathering (either virtual or physical) of technologists for a few days or weeks to build civic-themed software – remains one of the more durable manifestations of the open government movement.

Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new event or contest – sometimes more than one. As I’ll explain more fully in a moment, this is a good thing.

The civic hackathon is also, increasingly, one of more analyzed facets of the open government movement.

There are more and more smart, engaged people talking about ways to make civic hackathons better – to help ensure that the software these events produce is of higher quality and has a longer lasting effect. This is also a good thing.

Some of the more enlightened analyses on methods/strategies for improving civic hackathons that have crossed my radar of late (by no means a complete list) are the following:

Also worth a read is a recent post on TechPresident by Nick Judd (always a thoughtful contributor on this topic).

In reading much of what is written on the subject of civic hackathons lately, it’s easy to take away a feeling of concern – even skepticism – about their real value.

The constant lament I hear is that civic hackathons don’t work (or don’t work well enough) because many of the apps that are developed as part of these events are not sustained long-term. Some don’t survive the weekend.

I have for some time tried to dispel the notion that this is the only measure (or even one of the most important) of a civic hackathon’s success. And in this post, I will try again.

I <3 Hackathons

I’ve got a thing for civic hackathons.

I was a competitor in the very first Apps for Democracy that took place under Vivek Kundra in Washington, DC, and I was also a competitor in the first Apps for America contest put on by the Sunlight Foundation.

Since then, I’ve been a participant in lots of other civic hackathons and coding events as either a participant, organizer and sponsor (sometimes as more than one).

I’m currently organizing a Philadelphia civic hackathon and helping to organize another in Baltimore. I am a part of not one, but two entries in the FCC’s Apps for Communities competition.

Yeah, I like hackathons.

This doesn’t always make me the most objective person in discussions about whether civic hackathons “work,” but I believe my multifaceted experience with these events has given me insight into other factors that can be used to evaluate their success.

I think civic hackathons can be bigger than the apps the generate. With some forethought and planning, these events can generate benefits that resonate well beyond the end of the award ceremony.

I think it’s a mistake to judge the success of a hackathon solely on how long the apps it produces “live” afterwards.

It’s also a mistake to try and improve hackathons by focusing exclusively on strategies for sustaining apps in the long term. This misses some of the most important benefits that can be generated by these events.

Whether we’re judging past success of civic hackathons or trying to improve future performance, it’s time to get beyond the apps.

You Get What You Plan For

I’m by no means suggesting that striving for long-term adoption of apps generated at civic hackathons is a trivial or unimportant thing. Far from it.

I’m currently working with a group in Philadelphia that developed an app as part of a recent Random Hacks of Kindness event, to identify funding and supporters to help support operation of the app long-term.

My contention here is that this is but one of the benefits to come from this civic hacking event generally, and from this software application specifically.

Not only did the efforts of my team result in an app – they resulted in a previously unavailable data set being published for others to use.  The app my team worked on helps people in Philadelphia locate farmer’s markets and food retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reimbursement through text messaging. The data behind this app is now available for anyone that wants it, either through an API that supports geo-spatial queries or as a downloadable file in a commonly used format.

The data our app needed to operate was “liberated” in the process of building the app. It is now available for anyone else to use, tweak, modify or expand.

That was our plan, and whether we are able to secure longer-term support for our app, and receive assistance in promoting it, this liberated data will live on.

I’m not the only person that has made this argument. Clay Johnson – formerly of Sunlight Labs – has emphasized repeatedly the need to build a community around app contests. This is another positive outcome that can have long term benefits that is not directly related to how many apps are actively being used six months after a civic hacking event.

I noted with some excitement the number of elected officials and political candidates that attended the recent Summer of Smart hackathons in San Francisco. This is a great way to expose public sector employees and officials to the power of civic hacking.

It’s an approach I am using in the upcoming Apps for SEPTA coding event I’m helping organize in Philadelphia, where officials from the Mayor’s office (who’ve never been to a hackathon before) will be in attendance.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the key benefits of civic hackathons is that they stretch traditional notions of public service delivery and show governments what is possible to do with their data. I can’t think of a more effective way to do this than through a civic hacking event.

There is also the very real potential for these events to generate reusable components – open source software that can be used by other developers or governments to build civic applications down the road.

Nick Judd of TechPresident said this much more eloquently than I:

“With each hackathon, some of the detritus — bits of code, training videos, documentation, the right people trading email addresses — becomes scaffolding for the attendees of later ones.”

The benefits that are achievable through civic hackathons go far beyond just the collection of apps that get developed in the course of a weekend.

But the impetus is on organizers and supporters of such events to plan for these benefits, and to nurture them after the event is concluded. You get what you plan for, and if event organizers don’t plan past the end of the weekend then the potential for a missed opportunity is real.

Civic hackathons are bigger than the apps they generate – they always have been.

Many, though, are now just realizing how far the benefits of these weekends of caffeine-fueled hacking extend.

On this day one year ago, Alex Howard published his first GovFresh post

Alex HowardOn this day one year ago, Alex Howard published his first GovFresh post. Since then, he has written a total of 302 on his OpenGovFresh blog (subscribe).

Thank you Alex for your contributions and support of GovFresh, but also all the work you do for the entire open government community. There are many ideas, innovators, apps and events that don’t get covered by mainstream media and, if they weren’t covered by you, would never move beyond our community of Gov 2.0 enthusiasts. Blogging is powerful, and you do important work.

As I’ve said many times, Alex Howard is the “Hardest Working Man in Gov 2.0 Business.”

Follow Alex’s work on O’Reilly Radar or connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

FutureGov founder Dominic Campbell on ‘Networking Government’

Excellent TEDxLondonBusinessSchool talk on open government by FutureGov founder Dominic Campbell.


“We’re at a point now, where you’re either with us or against us. Are you just trying to nibble away at government and make it slightly more efficient, shine the windows on the town hall, make the odd bit of savings or are we actually going to transform government into something entirely different? “

Photo thumbnail: TEDxLBS

Gov 2.0 Radio: Web Manager Kristy Fifelski

Kristy FifelskiKristy Fifelski of and Web Manager joins us on Gov 2.0 Radio to discuss Reno’s planned inaugural civic hackathon, her GovGirl video series, the upcoming National Association of Government Webmasters conference and the new



Time for government to plug into one platform?

In a new blog post, Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio asks if it’s time to pull the plug on government Websites? Di Maio cites one Japanese city’s decision to migrate its online presence to Facebook as an example of an outside-the-box approach to government Web operations.

One comment from ‘Carolyn’ makes a strong case why the Facebook approach is short-sighted:

Believe it or not, some people trust Facebook even less than they trust government. Why make civic participation dependent on surrendering portions of your privacy to a corporation that will monetize it? I don’t want a crowdsourced opinion on when my garbage will be collected. I don’t want to have to sift through the mass of information out there on the web to find the proper permit application, or tax form for my business. And I don’t want corporate interests controlling my access to my government.

Related to this, one of my favorite quotes about Facebook comes from blogger Jason Kottke (2007):

As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.

Di Maio’s general point is that when government builds Websites they “almost inevitably fail to model access the way people do expect or need it.” But just because this has been the case to date, doesn’t mean public sector IT should transition its entire online operations to the trendiest social network.

It’s time for government to radically reconsider its online service offering to citizens with a more sustainable approach.

Centralizing government Websites into one portal is something I’ve advocated for years (see here and here). In fact, the White House is exploring this and other options around improving the .gov ecosystem (they addressed my question specifically on this subject at a White House ‘Open for Questions’ live chat here).

If government really wants to focus on IT efficiency and cost-savings, CIOs and CTOs need to construct a more focused, organic strategy that includes the following:

  • Centralize your Web ecosystem into a single CMS and uniform brand/theme
  • Develop using open source software.
  • Create an open data portal.
  • Leverage APIs.
  • Migrate as much to the cloud as possible.
  • Create topic-based content and ensure distribution via RSS, email and all social media means available.
  • Develop a mobile strategy based on accessing the data above and empowering external, entrepreneurial ventures to compete in a free market to provide the best services (i.e., build less apps in-house).

The above list is by no means comprehensive and perhaps one day I’ll have more time to elaborate. It is, however, a general, sustainable strategy for addressing pubic sector budgeting constraints given the current economic conditions. Some or all of this could be done in-house or out-sourced. If the latter, it needs to be highly extensible and portable.

I’m all for radical re-working and thinking different, but don’t let fiscal uncertainty or short-term instability drive irrational IT decision-making, especially when it comes to public services and citizen privacy.

Second Summer of Smart hackathon tackles buildings, transportation and sustainability

GAFFTA Chairman Peter Hirshberg and Mayoral Candidate and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu chat with the team. The team, including MIT SENSEable Cities Lab research associate Christine Outram, created an app that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces

GAFFTA Chairman Peter Hirshberg and Mayoral Candidate and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu chat with the team. The team, including MIT SENSEable Cities Lab research associate Christine Outram, created an app that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces

Building data. It’s a small thing, but what if the buildings where we live, work and play were able to show us how they work? How much energy they use, what their carbon footprint is, how they compare to the building next door? Building data. It’s also a huge thing, a salvo in the data revolution that rages across the U.S. and brings the hope of transparent, agile and accountable government.

San Francisco has always been a proving ground for small ideas that blow up to impact the American landscape in ways no one could have predicted, from the hippies in the 1960s to the tech boom that is still ongoing. The current movement is challenging coders, data artists, designers and makers to find, create and illuminate available data to build apps, widgets and games to make the city better — to use civic hackathons to create experiments that have the potential to change the face of city government.

This puzzle is the basis of the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts (GAFFTA)’s Summer of Smart program, a three-month experiment in urban innovation that is bringing together developers, designers, city officials, urbanists, journalists, community members, and more to see what happens when you give ordinary citizens the tools to create change. GAFFTA, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that funds and creates experiments that build social consciousness through digital culture, along with the San Francisco Department of Technology, has created a living laboratory for a new model for how citizens and government can work directly together to address urban issues. It’s called Democracy 3.0, and it’s not limited to the West Coast anymore.

GAFFTA’s second urban hackathon was held over the weekend of July 22 to 24, and focused on sustainability, transportation, and energy.

One eye-opener for the 100 passionate citizen who showed up on Friday night was that the transportation sector is awash in data, (though it’s often not being used correctly or at all by the actual transportation agencies) while building data is such a morass of different formats and metrics that it’s impossible to work with.

“The reason we are talking about transportation and buildings is that the two of them account for a huge percentage of our country’s energy bill,” said Peter Hirshberg, chairman of GAFFTA. “In a city, buildings consume 40 percent of our energy bill, and about 30 percent of that could be saved if we knew what was going on. The problem is that we’re a little bit data blind. There’s just not that much information about buildings.”

In order to focus energy and attention on that problem, GAFFTA brought in experts to talk to the hackers about transportation, energy efficiency and city government.

Di-Ann Eisnor, a GAFFTA board member and executive at WAZE told the group about the how crowd-sourced traffic data is providing far more real time information about what’s happening on our roads than was ever available from government, sensors, or helicopter traffic services. “When you turn gathering traffic data into a game, and thousands of smart phone users play along, you are able to see what’s going on and manage traffic as never before,” Eisnor said. In keeping with the art spirit of things, she showed GAFFTA created visualizations of LA traffic data from the recent Carmageddon weekend.

Brandon Tinianov, CTO of Serious Energy spoke of buildings as machines full of data and manageable, but too often lacking the software layer and systems to allow building managers to do anything about it. His firm is a leader in providing industrial solutions to the problems, but he too called for a building data movement — to create awareness, open up more data, and to help cities understand how much better and more efficient buildings could be when attention was focused on working with the right data. “We can map bikes, trash, cars, but we can’t map buildings,” he said. “No one in this room knows what this building consumes or if it’s efficient.”

By Sunday evening, the seven teams had created projects that, in some ways, used available data to highlight what was missing. One team used available data to create a widget that will allow tenants of commercial buildings to compare sustainability factors such as energy use, waste generated and water consumed. Another group used data supplied by Muni to build an app that would allow line supervisors to use the same information that riders have to make on-the-fly decisions about trains and buses. Another takes information from building permits available on to create a picture of green building retrofit history in San Francisco. All in all, the teams were about evenly split between transportation and buildings, somewhat surprising given the difference in the amount of data that was out there between the two.

“This weekend was particularly interesting, because after searching for data, it became very clear that the transportation sector is way ahead of the energy sector, and part of this is demonstrating useful applications for the energy data: something I believe the weekend achieved,” said Christine Outram, research associate at the MIT SENSEable City lab. Outram and her team created, a site that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces. “The story of data needs to be told, because data provides value and insight. We have seen this happen in the transportation sector, where mobile applications and data analysis have resulted in a more convenient, efficient, and flexible transit system that doesn’t require the roll-out of additional infrastructure or vehicles. This is not enough though, we must continue to tell the story of data so that other sectors begin to understand the value proposition.”

Building data, on the other hand, is a confusing mess of formats, standards and metrics. In February, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee signed the Existing Commercial Building Energy Performance Ordinance, which requires owners of commercial buildings to determine how much energy a building uses and make that data available, but it doesn’t apply universally until 2013. Even the data that is currently available isn’t always in the same formats, a problem tackled by the North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB) and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in their PAP10 project to create a data standard for energy usage.

“Government data is critical for the public in terms of transparency and accountability,” said Jay Nath, director of innovation at the San Francisco department of technology. While the projects that came from the weekend were all very good, Nath thinks they could have been even better if the data was there. “Data is the raw material for much of the work that happens at hackathons. Our goal as government is to increase access to data that is consistent with our privacy and security policies. Events like this can spur demand for data that can raise awareness within government.”

The other focus of the weekend, transportation, had almost the complete opposite problem: the groups were swimming in data, but the public transit agencies in the city don’t have access to it, or don’t actually use it. Emily Drennen, a current intern with Muni, decided to use the weekend to fix Muni: “You know, a small, manageable project.” Her idea was originally to find a way to allow train operators and line supervisors to access the same information that riders have, on, and use that data to make on-the-fly decisions to solve bunched up buses or clogged muni trains. But when they went down and actually talked to some of the Muni employees, it turned out that supervisors often didn’t even know when there was a problem, much less have the ability to solve it on the fly. “The people who are in charge are basically on their radios going ‘Roger roger’ and trying to get the information across,” said Matt Kroneberger, a Berkeley graduate student.

The Summer of Smart hackathons have drawn the attention of people across the city, from mayoral candidates to tech superstars and San Francisco-based corporations. Candidates Phil Ting, Joanna Rees and David Chiu stopped by the GAFFTA headquarters and all said that they want the innovative spirit of the hackathons to live on in their administrations, which is exactly what Hirshberg hoped would happen when he came up with the idea.

“The insight for summer of smart, for me, began when GAFFTA Executive Director Josette Melchor and I were talking to supervisors and mayoral candidates about open data and visualization and they looked at us and said, ‘well we’ve heard about that, but how does gov 2.0 help make a better city, make people be more healthy, solve social problems or make the trains run on time? What does it do for our voters?’,” Hirshberg said. “I realized that it was a classic case of us geeks being excited about something and the business users not having any idea what we’re talking about. This is a classic problem in technology marketing So I was really interested in making the people who are running for office clients for real live projects. If they said ‘these are the priorities,’ that would turn the geeks into people who actually understood what the real business use was. By making it a part of the campaign process, we’d create a lot of awareness. We’d be a laboratory for ideas that candidates might want to adopt – ideas worth stealing.” Candidate Phil Ting echoed this when he said, “When you are in a campaign, you are constantly looking to push the envelope and challenge yourself as well as the city and you’re looking for innovative ideas. In a campaign, it’s like policy entrepreneurship. Candidates, especially those of us who are running for offices we haven’t held, we’re looking to identify issues that we can champion and that we can work on and I think that’s happening a lot in this campaign.”

While that sounds idyllic, you might be forgiven if your experiences with city government have made you a bit cynical. However, in this case it’s actually working. Remember that Muni app, created in a weekend by seven regular citizens? On Sunday evening, the groups presented their apps to an audience including Melanie Nutter, Director of the San Francisco Department of Environment. When the conversation turned to the potential to offend a city IT staffer, Hirshberg turned to Nutter and asked, “You work for the city, are we in trouble yet?” Nutter’s response? “I’m part of the [Muni] strategic planning team and I think this is a great thing.”

The Road ahead for Open Baltimore

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the state of the open data program in the city of Baltimore.

At the time, the buzz from a day of civic hacking with data released by the city was still palpable and the developers of an application built in the wake of this event stood ready to release it for public use with a full marketing push.

Questions remained about how developers would be authorized to use city data for commercial applications, and – perhaps more importantly – how often the data released as part of the Open Baltimore initiative would be refreshed and maintained.

At the recent Baltimore Data Day event – organized by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance – I had an opportunity to meet Rico Singleton (CIO for the City of Baltimore) and some of his staff to talk about Open Baltimore.

Based on what I heard from Mr. Singleton and his staff, I think that significant questions about the open Baltimore initiative still remain, but I am now more convinced of the city’s commitment to open data and to the long-term success of the program.

An outsider’s perspective

I don’t live in Baltimore so I sincerely hope that my perspective on the city’s open data program will be interpreted for what it is: a representative view of the many people who have friends or family there, who visit often, who care deeply about the state of the city, and who are interested in building civic apps for Baltimore.

To the extent that there are political undercurrents to what is happening with open data in Baltimore, I’m detached from them. I won’t (and can’t) vote for any political representative in Baltimore and I don’t (and won’t) contribute money to any of their campaigns.

I have, however, worked with other cities to provide advice and support for their open data programs – most notably the cities of San Francisco and Philadelphia – and I enjoy being active in the civic hacking ecosystem.  Outside of the city of Baltimore, I don’t think you’ll find a bigger supporter of the Open Baltimore program or someone rooting harder for its long-term success.

I was encouraged by what I heard from Mr. Singleton and his staff last week at Baltimore Data Day, but long-term success for Open Baltimore still seems somewhat in doubt.

Here is what I heard, and what I would suggest to Mr. Singleton and MOIT for making Open Baltimore a smashing long-term success.

An Open discussion

Baltimore Data Day provided an opportunity for myself and Mike Brenner (a passionate advocate for open data in Baltimore and organizer of the Civic Hack Day) to meet Rico Singleton in person.  I wanted to use this opportunity to discuss what I thought about Open Baltimore.

Mr. Singleton was very approachable, friendly and eager to talk.  His time was somewhat limited at the event, but we had a chance to chat briefly about the Open Baltimore initiative and I was able to express some of the concerns that I have heard from others in and around the open data movement in Baltimore.

Chief among them was that the data in the Open Baltimore site is quickly becoming stale.  For example, some of the more prominent data sets are now quite old – data on 311 service requests is only current to January, and parking citation data is only current to March.

If developers are going to use city data to build civic apps (or if activists and community leaders are going to use it to advocate for those they represent) this data must be kept more current.  Mr. Singeton (and MOIT staff at the event) seemed to understand this concern, but none offered a clear and convincing response to how the city would address it.

Two representatives from MOIT staff were on hand to talk at the Baltimore Data Day event as well – Heather Hudson (the full time program manager for Open Baltimore) and Tom Jones (technical support for Open Baltimore and other MOIT initiatives).  Both discussed in some detail an effort by the city to provide more realtime updates to the Open Baltimore site, particularly for high demand data sets like parking citations.

Both Hudson and Jones seemed excited and passionate about this effort, but neither provided specifics on when this process or system would be put into regular use.  While I was initially very excited to hear about this effort, it was pointed out to me by others afterwards that this discussions has been going on for some time.

In the limited time that was available, I asked both Hudson and Mr. Singleton if the city would be willing to endorse and actively participate in another data hacking event focused on the use of city data to build civic apps.

Both thought it was a good idea and accepted the offer.  Mr. Singleton shook hands with myself and Mike Brenner on it before departing for another event.

The Road ahead for Open Baltimore

I’ve said this before and I truly believe it – the City of Baltimore’s open data program has some of the key ingredients needed for real long-terms success.

Chief among them – in my opinion – is the selection of Socrata as the platform for serving data sets.  The Socrata platform is just awesome and the company is a leader in the open data movement, helping develop standards that benefit any government wishing to start down this road.

In addition, there is a passionate and active developer community in Baltimore – as evidenced by the attendance at and enthusiasm from the Civic Hack Day organized earlier this year.

But to capitalize on these things, I believe that Mr. Singleton and his staff need to do some things differently.


The city needs to do a better job communicating with developers about what it is doing to improve the Open Baltimore site and in soliciting feedback on how it can do things better.Neither the city’s forums on Open Baltimore or the Open Baltimore twitter feed are especially active (one can almost hear the crickets).

How is the city communicating with the technology community about Open Baltimore? Am I missing something? I see lots of discussion in social networks like Facebook from the technology community in Baltimore, but almost nothing from the city on what it’s hopes, plans or intentions are for Open Baltimore.

On a personal note, it registered rather sharply with me that neither Ms. Hudson nor Mr. Jones from MOIT is on Twitter (I specifically asked about this). Mr Singleton is at best an infrequent Twitter user and none of them seems to be active on Facebook.

It’s telling that although several people I talked to had heard about the city’s efforts to push realtime data to the Open Baltimore site, no one seems to know what the timeline for this effort is. Beyond the discussion with Hudson and Jones at Baltimore Data Day last week, I’m not aware of any specific data sets being named as candidates for this effort either (Hudson indicated that parking citations are part of the beta “realtime project”).

Developers may not be happy with the frequency of updates to particular data sets, but they would be far more understanding if they had clear information on what was being done behind the scenes to enhance them.  Without good information, ominous conclusions are more likely to be drawn.

Moreover, I think it would be great to see MOIT tell the story behind this push for realtime updates. I got the sense in talking with MOIT staff last week that this is a rather unique effort among cities that use the Socrata platform.  What a great story to tell – I’m sure the technology community in Baltimore would love to hear it.


Our motivation in asking Mr. Singleton and Ms. Hudson to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with local organizers for another Civic Hack Day was simple – I think the city needs to engage consumers of open data (i.e., developers) more directly.Other cities and states that have embarked on open data programs have undertaken multifaceted efforts to engage developers and overtly communicate with them that the government wants them to use its data to build awesome things. This is noticeably absent from the Open Baltimore initiative.

While I would personally love to see a full on app development contest in Baltimore, I think another Civic Hack Day with the city’s explicit endorsement (and full participation) would go a long way toward communicating with developers that the city wants their help in turning city data into useful end products.

It’s also worth noting that Baltimore Data Day itself represented something of a missed opportunity for engagement on Open Baltimore. The event would have been a perfect fit for a presentation on the status, and future goals of Open Baltimore and there were many participants at the event who would have benefited from some time with Mr. Singleton.

(Another open data pioneer in Baltimore – Shea Frederick, one of the creators of SpotAgent – was unable to meet with Mr. Singleton or his staff at the event as they did not arrive until almost midday.)

In my opinion, the City should do more to reach out to the developer and tech communities in and around Baltimore. They are your best possible allies for making Open Baltimore a success.

I look forward to seeing the Open Baltimore initiative become successful in the long term, and I hope that this advice (from one interested outsider) can help make a difference.