By GovFresh · August 1, 2011
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.