It’s very rare that a concerned group of citizens goes down to city hall for a town forum and can walk away with almost unanimous appreciation and faith that our officials are moving in the right direction. Last night was one of those rare occasions.
Baltimore City CIO, Rico Singleton, was asked to address the tech community on the state of the city’s IT infrastructure, pending challenges, and strategic initiatives that are in place to move Baltimore to becoming a top-tier digital city. Kate Bladow of BmoreSmart setup the meeting after seeing a bunch of outward disconnect from the local community (myself included) and the city’s IT department. Up until recently there has been little engagement from the city’s public-facing IT initiatives (OpenBaltimore, 311, a potential Apps contest) and a lot of us were making requests that seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Mr. Singleton addressed the crowd of about 30 or so techies with a well-prepared presentation that not only talked about Baltimore’s IT but also gave us an understanding of who he is as a person. Mr. Singleton was hired for the CIO role back in December 2010 after serving 3 years as Deputy CIO / CTO of New York State. At the time he entered Baltimore, he was the only member of the Mayor’s cabinet that was bringing an iPad to meetings which has since spurred others to follow suit. I think that anecdote helps illustrate the effect he’s already starting to have in reshaping City Hall’s acceptance and appreciation of technology.
Below are a few of the key nuggets that I extracted from last night’s discussion.
Office of the CIO
Upon examination, it seems the organization is incomplete. Underneath the Deputy CIO, there are 3 top-level management positions that have been vacant for over 8 months (they’re hiring). Another interesting note is that the city’s IT is completely decentralized. For a while, employees have been reimbursed for buying their own computers with their own suite of software. None of the existing departments are synced together and manual data imports are how transactions are taking place.
Before adding a bunch of the programs we have asked the city to consider, Mr. Singleton has expressed the need to “stabilize our house before we can add on”. There are no IT policies or standards in place right now so those have to be developed as well as an enterprise architecture that can handle the scaling of further development. For those that are lost: consider walking into a restaurant’s kitchen for the first time to make food for that night’s meal only to see that none of the ingredients have expiration dates (yikes!) and you have no recipe book. Oh, and your kitchen is flooded.
One of the most eye-opening facts that I learned last night was that our city’s IT budget is unnaturally low. Baltimore’s total budget is $2 Billion. The average IT budget for all US cities is 2% – 4% of the total budget. Baltimore’s IT budget is $20 Million (including payroll). That means IT is less than 1% of our total budget. Regardless of the state of our economy, we need to increase our IT budget to a reasonable level.
It’s refreshing to hear Mr. Singleton’s thoughts on where the city needs to be. He’s a fan of open-goverment, cloud services, civic engagement, and strategic sourcing to name a few. Up until now, the city has been building their own applications to reactively solve their needs. Mr. Singleton is going to scrap that approach and use off-the-shelf software that is feature rich, cost-effective, and quicker to implement. In a couple weeks the city will be announcing a transition over to cloud services which is smart.
A lot of trust and transparency were established last night and I’d love to see these public meetings with Mr. Singleton and his office happen on a regular (quarterly?) basis. A handful of the initiatives that were discussed are already being supported and discussed within our community and it makes sense to leverage our community’s talent and passion to get some of these accomplished, especially when the city seems to be short-staffed and broke.
I applaud Mr. Singleton for not only accepting the request to meet last night but also for giving an exceptional presentation that puts hope in a lot of us geeks that the city is becoming a better place to live and work.
Below is the complete presentation from Mr. Singleton.