Make meaningful technical additions to a crowded world of such solutions. That was the task of about 60 civic hackers gathered at AOL/Ad.com in Tide Point for the Hack for Change hackathon.
The event was Baltimore’s contribution to the inaugural, cross-country National Day of Civic Hacking, which brought together a hodgepodge of interested folk—computer programmers, activists, nonprofit workers and government agencies and employees—and told them to take a weekend to produce something tech-based that would either improve people’s lives or make the machinations of government more transparent (or both).
Close to 100 of these events happened over Saturday and Sunday. Baltimore’s event, organized by gb.tc, was especially unique in that people here directly collaborated with or built projects from Philadelphians or pre-existing Philadelphia-based civic hacks, respectively. And the makeup of participants included programmers, experienced and inexperienced, as well as city health department employees, the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology, U.S. Census workers, FEMA contractors and employees of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But most important was a hackathon that—for a refreshing deviation from the norm—ended with a handful of practical submissions, ready to be implemented (or damn close) and with tangible benefits:
- An easy-to-follow resume builder for use at public libraries.
- An interactive map of the property tax rates of all properties in Baltimore city.
- A near-complete repackaging of the city’s law code into easy-to-read XML format.
The crux of it all was open data: government data voluntarily made publicly accessible. It’s this information, about the number of vacant properties within Baltimore city for example, that sits at a relatively new intersection of technology and government.
Watch Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s opening remarks on Saturday morning:
“We think that there’s a pipeline of innovation … [to] expand the conversation about how we deploy and use technology to solve government problems,” said Baltimore chief information officer Chris Tonjes during the Hack for Change kickoff Saturday morning.
That’s a piece of it. Open data asks us not only to allow citizens a broader place at the table of power, but also to remember that technology is simply a means to facilitate, or improve, or make more clear people’s interactions with fellow citizens and their elected officials.
Sometimes open data is nothing more than window dressing, a convenient way for antiquated government stricture to validate its trendy bona fides. And open data, certainly, isn’t immune to chagrin or disappointment. In a time when so much of technological innovation gives infinite regard to the naïve arrogance of startup founders who seek refuge in mobile apps and websites, a website that maps interactively the amount of money homeowners in this city pay annually in property taxes might not be a major victory.
The difference, of course, is that while private citizens aren’t necessarily privy to the inner workings of private companies large or small, they are the most integral part of any representative government. (Internet high-five to John Locke, you Enlightenment fox, you.)
What Hack for Change did was provide people the opportunity (and the Natty Boh) to dive into information Baltimore city government normally collects and ask, collectively, what can it do for us?
And when that happens, private citizens gain another avenue to bring more visibility to the civic matters they care about most, and another way to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
Baltimore’s Hack for Change projects are below.
The award winners:
- Most Transparent: Baltimore Vacants, an interactive map of vacant properties in Baltimore, pulled from the vacant properties dataset available on the OpenBaltimore data portal. Creator Shea Frederick had developed the map long before the weekend, but he added in Vital Signs data from 2010 from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, which allows map viewers to view unemployment rates, demographic breakdowns and more in relation to the percentage of vacants in different Baltimore neighborhoods. ($250 award presented by the Sunlight Foundation.)
- Best Philly Fork: Baltimore City Property Tax Map, an interactive map of this city’s property tax data, including how much in property taxes are paid each year. Creator Ryan Smith argued that such a tool could be used by homeowners to challenge an upward increase in their property taxes post-assessment by the city, especially if neighbors next door are paying less in taxes for a similarly sized house. The map was a riff off Philadelphia’s Property Tax Changes map. ($250 award presented by AOL/Ad.com.)
- Most Likely to Make a Difference: two awards of $500 each:
- CodeForSex: a website and texting service that allows people who have taken an STD test to receive their results electronically, saving them a visit to a clinic, and freeing up the time of city health department workers to provide treatment and counseling to patients that tested positive for STDs.
- EZ Resume: a free resume-builder site that asks users with limited computer skills particular questions, which are filled out in an interactive website form. Answers are automatically pushed to a word-processing document with the proper formatting, ensuring that the user gets a proper resume.
Other projects developed (most of these are still germinal):
- AppsForBaltimore: inspired by AppsForPhilly, it’s a website that lets people upload the civic applications available for Baltimoreans. The site is live and working, and you need not be the creator of a civic app to upload it.
- Sheltr Baltimore: a replica of Sheltr Philly, a map of homeless services and resources.
- Baltimore Decoded: produced by the OpenGov Foundation, makers of MarylandCode.org, it’s Baltimore’s city charter boiled down into XML, easy-to-read format.
- Open Plane Big Data: pulling available data from the Federal Aviation Administration to make a real-time display of flight information for different airlines.
- Walk and Talk Baltimore: a customizable visualization that uses crowdsourcing as the means to map community resources for health in East Baltimore.
- SDAT Property Data Search: this new search display will mix Maryland state property records with Baltimore city property tax data, geolocation data and Census data to provide details about city properties, complete with hyperlinks to make for interactivity between data elements. (So, click on a homeowner’s name to see how many properties they own, and whether they’re vacant.)
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