Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake may have looked a bit out of place among the 50 software programmers gathered early one Saturday morning in June for a weekend hackathon.
Of course, these hackers were gathered for good. They had assembled to participate in Baltimore’s first Hack for Change event, whereby small teams dove into publicly accessible government data, determined to find technology-based solutions to persistent municipal problems. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition was noteworthy: the city’s chief executive standing feet from several hackers combing through a database of Baltimore’s 16,000-plus vacant properties.
Strides have been made here and countrywide to bring together city bureaucrats, the traditional gatekeepers of city data and government agencies’ information, and civic hackers, a new breed of activist-innovator who wants untrammeled access to all government data, even the stuff that might prove unflattering to a politician or city official.
Civic hacker and AOL/Ad.com developer Shea Frederick on why open data is important:
Blending what might be called Old Bureaucracy and Civic Hacktivism is delicate. The former favors a gradual approach to change, as multiple stakeholders need to be courted and, in some cases, coddled. The latter fixes broken lines of code 15 minutes after midnight, running on nothing but cold pizza and Red Bull. What could cordially marry the two is making a clear case for why increased access to more government data is necessary to keep a 21st-century municipality honest and efficient.
Some of that interplay is already happening in Baltimore.
- During Baltimore Innovation Week on Tuesday in an event hosted by gb.tc, the city announced the winners of Hack the Parks, an extended hackathon that mashed up low-tech and software ideas from residents to make city parks better.
- OpenBaltimore, the online portal for such data, has been expanded and updated since new city CTO Chris Tonjes began his tenure in July 2012.
- At June’s civic hackathon, organized by gb.tc, it was announced that Heather Hudson would become Baltimore’s first-ever Chief Data Officer, responsible for collecting city agency data into a machine-readable format — easier to read and download, in other words.
- On Wednesday, also part of Baltimore Innovation Week, City Council’s first public hearing on the innovation economy included mention of data and transparency.
What remains to be seen is if these digital in-roads can deeply change city agencies with entrenched workflow and a culture of skittishness. As freshman Councilman Brandon M. Scott told Technical.ly Baltimore in July: “We’re doing a great job of sharing more data, but we still have a long way to go.”
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