Baltimore Open Government 2011 Year in Review

Baltimore City Hall - Photo by wallyg

Photo by wallyg

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.

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.

B’more Open: Is Baltimore the new San Francisco?

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signs executive order creating the city's first open data initiative.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signs executive order creating the city's first open data initiative.

From open data to open source procurement policy to open311, San Francisco has led the open government way, but with the recent departures of former mayor Gavin Newsom (now California lieutenant governor) and former chief information officer Chris Vein, it looks as if Baltimore is on its way to becoming the new San Francisco.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and new Chief Information Officer Rico Singleton recently announced the city’s first open data initiative, OpenBaltimore (powered by Socrata), to “increase transparency and improve the level of trust between the people and their government.”

On the heels of this announcement, the Baltimore Sun reports Baltimore city council members have proposed drafting a panel of residents to choose candidates for empty seats, giving citizens a direct role in the city’s democratic process.

Rawlings-Blake is even starting to sound like an open government mayor:

“With OpenBaltimore, the city government will begin sharing data with the public in an unprecedented way,” said Mayor Rawlings-Blake. “Innovative and creative people will now be able to collaborate with government, and hopefully find ways to improve service delivery and save money for taxpayers.”

Video of Rawlings-Blake announcing and signing the executive order creating Baltimore’s open data initiative:

While these aren’t ground-breaking initiatives, it shows potential for a city that doesn’t normally get recognized for innovation and technology. This is a great first step.

Let’s hope B’more’s new open government motto is ‘B’more Open.’

Side note: Mayor Rawlings-Blake, if you’re reading, get Baltimore to Code for America.