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.

Communication

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.

Engagement

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.

About Mark Headd

Mark Headd is the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, serving as one of the first municipal Chief Data Officers in the United States, and was also Director of Government Relations at Code for America. He currently works with civic technologists and open data advocates as a Developer Evangelist for Accela, Inc. A coder and civic hacking veteran, he has worked as both a hands-on technologist and as a high-level policy advisor. Self taught in programming, he holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and is a former adjunct instructor at the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration teaching a course in electronic government.

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