Mayor Orders City To Post Data Trove Online

… Open Baltimore effort intended to increase transparency, accountability …

By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

8:22 PM EST, January 26, 2011

Which Baltimore neighborhoods have the most break-ins? Where are cars most likely to be ticketed? Which city buildings are assessed the highest property taxes — and which are not taxed at all?

Before Wednesday, those seeking answers to such questions would have to file time-consuming public information requests to obtain city data. But the city is now posting such data on a new website — two dozen sets of data from city agencies so far, with more to be posted in the coming months.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said making the information public will help “innovative and creative people … find ways to improve service delivery and save money for taxpayers.” She signed an executive order Wednesday requiring city agencies to post data online as part of an effort called Open Baltimore.

Similar initiatives in the District of Columbia, San Francisco, Seattle and elsewhere have spawned programs that enable users of smart phones to find parks, learn whether restaurants have passed health inspections, determine when the next bus arrives and even identify trees.

“A lot of us nerds are really excited about this kind of stuff,” said Mike Brenner, a website designer. He quickly dug into the data and was uploading a list of city parking citations onto Google maps Wednesday afternoon to show the neighborhoods in which cars are most likely to be ticketed.

Brenner and others are planning a “hackathon” in the next couple of weeks to comb through the data and brainstorm ideas for applications.

Calls for 311 service, property taxes, crime reports and maps of flood plains, parks and buildings were among the more than 20 databases that have been posted on the city’s site.

The city’s chief information officer said databases will be posted in part based on demands from residents.

The files are available in more than half a dozen formats, which chief information officer Rico Singleton said would allow programmers to export them and use them in conjunction with many different applications.

Some of the data will be updated instantly, and others will have a lag time of days or weeks, said Singleton, who led the project.

Officials say they want residents to use data to monitor city government.

“This gives the community a chance to hold government more accountable,” said Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty, who has long championed the city data system known as CitiStat.

“Our lawyers are scared, but it’s a mental barrier we’re going to have to move,” he said.

Dave Troy, a local tech entrepreneur, said the idea for the site grew out of a city-organized event to look at data last summer.

There was no central catalog or standardized format of city data, making it “sort of a treasure hunt to find something you could use,” Troy said.

Troy urged Baltimore officials to look to Washington’s example.

District of Columbia officials posted volumes of data several years ago, but few people tapped into it until a contest to develop new applications was launched in 2008.

Within the first 30 days of the contest, residents had created 47 applications, including maps to bike lanes, real-time crime maps and one called “Stumble Safely” that shows the shortest and safest routes home from bars, said Peter Corbett, CEO of iStategyLabs, the company that managed the contest.

The effort also helped focus attention on problems that required the district’s attention. For example, Corbett said, users discovered that it was taking an average of seven days to fix broken parking meters — six days longer than the meter repair contract required.

“It’s an effort to try to save cities money by leveraging the talents of its citizens,” said Corbett, who has written a manual for other municipalities to run similar programs.

Corbett said he found Baltimore’s data site easy to use and thought it would “galvanize” the local tech community.

“This is civic engagement with a segment of the population that has a skill set that’s very rare,” Corbett said.

Kimo Crossman, an advocate for government transparency in San Francisco, said that a data inititiave there has met with mixed success. The data has not replaced the need to file Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain key documents, he said.

“If you’re looking for transparency, you’re not going to get that from a data dump,” said Crossman.

Troy, the Baltimore tech advocate, said the real value of the data would become apparent once the initial excitement had worn off.

“The real test is to see what people are doing with it in a year or two years,” he said.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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