City's acting CTO on Baltimore's IT agenda: open data, WiFi - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Oct. 30, 2014 7:49 am

City’s acting CTO on Baltimore’s IT agenda: open data, WiFi

In a city department still smarting from scandal, L. Jerome Mullen is pushing ahead with a number of key initiatives.
L. Jerome Mullen speaks at a September event marking the activation of free WiFi at the Inner Harbor.

L. Jerome Mullen speaks at a September event marking the activation of free WiFi at the Inner Harbor.

(Photo by Tyler Waldman)

L. Jerome Mullen is still just the acting CTO of the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology. But he isn’t using his status as an excuse to just keep the lights on and maintain the status quo, he said in a recent interview with Technical.ly Baltimore.

“What I’m basically trying to do is ensure the success of the current initiatives, while laying out a start that is not specific to information technology in and of itself, but that is business-aligned,” Mullen said. “It’s not about cranking out a bunch of shiny things. It’s about aligning IT with those business needs.”

Mullen took over MOIT in March, when then-CTO Chris Tonjes was placed on administrative leave as part of an investigation into payments the office made to contractors for work that was not performed. In June, Tonjes submitted his resignation.

Rather than being a caretaker, Mullen has spearheaded several new initiatives, including free WiFi at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a redesign of the city’s website and a task force to make Baltimore what he called “a smarter city.”

In an interview earlier this year with CNN, Gov. Martin O’Malley, discussing his own ambitions for higher office, called wireless access “a human right,” echoing what the United Nations said about Internet access in a 2011 report.

Mullen said he wants to make sure, however, that these ideas become more than items on a to-do list.

The city’s new website, baltimorecity.gov, on mobile.

“We want to make sure they aren’t initiatives that come up with some thick document that winds up on a shelf gathering dust,” Mullen said of the task force and plans to expand public wireless access. “Generally speaking, we want to do those things, but how do we do those things?”

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The website overhaul has its beginnings three years ago, when the front page was redesigned.

“We didn’t feel like we really captured the needs of the citizens,” Mullen said. “So we did a survey. What do they like, what don’t they like?”

From that survey came the revamped, mobile-friendly city website.

As for wireless, that is also a goal for Mullen, but one that he plans to pursue methodically over the long-term, with help from consultants examining the city’s fiberoptic infrastructure. Right now, the city offers free WiFi access at Baltimore’s public markets, the Inner Harbor and outside Penn Station.

“It’s not about throwing up wireless at ad-hoc places,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s a strategy associated with that and whatever we do, we can sustain it.”

But currently, his biggest goal is transparency of city resources.

Baltimore city’s government maintains a portal at OpenBaltimore with towing data, crime statistics and even salary information for city employees.

"The project hasn't moved as fast as I would like, and a lot of that has to do with the state of our infrastructure."
Acting CTO L. Jerome Mullen on open data efforts

“That’s one of the initiatives that we’re really, really excited about. We want to make government transparent. We want to provide data for the public to analyze it,” Mullen said. “The project hasn’t moved as fast as I would like, and a lot of that has to do with the state of our infrastructure.”

Even when the will is there, much of this data isn’t necessarily friendly to spreadsheet standards, or even easily accessible. To that end, the city is building a new data warehouse.

One of Mullen’s most prominent allies in the push for transparency is Mark Grimes, the recently-appointed director of CitiStat. Though new to CitiStat, Grimes first joined the city as chief solicitor in 2005 before moving into a similar role in the Baltimore Police Department.

“You begin to start synthesizing the many data portals and data portals that have materialized for one reason or another,” Grimes said of the effort to standardize and warehouse data. “That kind of stems where we are now in this great push in lean economic times to try to perfect a system that when it’s done can just be a boon for the city.”

Grimes cited a “commonality” with how he and Mullen see the need and benefit of more transparency in city government.

“A lot of what we’re doing is building infrastructure to collect that data and obviously building governance,” Mullen said. “Everyone’s on board in terms of us sort of being a leader in making data available to the public.”

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