New Johns Hopkins center to help cities tap power of data - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Apr. 21, 2015 8:27 am

New Johns Hopkins center to help cities tap power of data

The Center for Government Excellence is part of a $42 million initiative created by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Michael Bloomberg speaks at Johns Hopkins University in 2013.

Michael Bloomberg speaks at Johns Hopkins University in 2013.

(Photo by Flickr user Maryland GovPics, used under a Creative Commons license)

Michael Bloomberg thinks using more data is the way to help city governments work better for citizens, and his alma mater is a big part of that play.

On Monday, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the launch of What Works Cities. It’s a $42 million initiative “to help city leaders use data and evidence in their decision-making to improve the lives of residents.”

In a HuffPo-torial published Monday, Bloomberg wrote that he wants to use his money to help cities with “resources that are always stretched thin” get more out of what they already have. (It’s somewhat similar to the vision outlined in an earlier Bloomberg Philanthropies challenge, from which Philadelphia won $1 million in 2013 to support social enterprises and fix the city procurement process.)

Details suggest the aim is for a huge impact. The new program is looking to help at least 150 mid-sized cities (population: 100,000-1 million) build out data capabilities over three years, and it will draw on the work of several partnering organizations to help those cities build a network.

Along with Results for America, the Sunlight Foundation and Harvard University’s Government Performance Lab, one of those organizations is a newly-created center at Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus. The Center for Government Excellence will work to assess the data capabilities of the cities that participate in the initiative, and educate the governments about the best practices for using data.

“This is about very comprehensive technical assistance and training for cities so cities are able to do this work on their own,” said Executive Director Beth Blauer.

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Ultimately, the Center aims to empower governments to use data and help them identify what areas of government they should use it in. It will also encourage the full What Works Cities network that emerges to share best practices.

Bloomberg was sure to say that What Works will help spread open data to the cities where its services are enlisted. Given the leadership at Hopkins, it’s basically a given that open data efforts to get the public involved will be a big part of the Center’s work.

Blauer is a well-known open data proponent who served as director of StateStat under former Gov. Martin O’Malley. She came to the Center for Government Excellence from Socrata, which makes open data platforms for governments. While at Socrata, she said she served as a “sounding board” for what became What Works Cities. Then, she was enticed to lead one of its biggest efforts.

“This is really a dream job for me to lead this work,” she said.

The Center’s director is Sharon Paley, a leading organizer of Baltimore’s tech community. She formerly worked as Chief Operations Officer at gb.tc, and DreamIt Health Baltimore, and is a cofounder of Hack Baltimore.

Blauer immediately pointed to Paley’s knowledge and experience around data and innovation when asked about why she was a good fit. But she also said it was important to “make sure the Center had a Baltimore anchor” despite its broad scope.

Baltimore is among an initial pilot group of cities for the What Works program. Both as a partnering city and a place to house the program, Blauer pointed to the city’s open data platform, civic hacking community and events that have had a meaningful impact. Paley, of course, has had a hand in each.

“We’re totally and 100 percent committed to Baltimore,” Blauer said.

Right now, the Center is building out new offices, and building out its staff. About a half-dozen employees are onboard, and Blauer said they will look to hire as many as 13 people.

The Center is currently hiring for an open data director and more than one analyst position.

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