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10 times Baltimore technologists made an impact using civic data

Baltimore was a pioneer in releasing open data. Here's a look at a few examples of what the tech community did with it.

Baltimore beckons. (Photo by Flickr user urbanfeel, used under a Creative Commons license)
Baltimore has been called a pioneer in the use of civic data, with OpenBaltimore’s launch on the Socrata platform in 2011 making city datasets available to the public. The city has continued to provide that data under CIO Jerome Mullen and Heather Hudson, with datasets like 911 calls added at the urging of City Councilman Brandon Scott.

Releasing the data also created a way for the tech community to get involved with the government. Almost immediately after OpenBaltimore’s launch, civic hacking meetups and hackathons sprouted around the city. Events like Education Hack Day, Groundwork and Hack for Change, the Reinvent Transit Hackathon and efforts by organizers like Kate Bladow to connect technologists around civic work were just some of the events of the couple years that followed.
Now this leadership is going national. To use one example, Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence, where former state open data leader Beth Blauer and former COO Sharon Paley currently have leadership roles, advises cities across the country (including Baltimore) on the use of data.
Along the way, various projects have had a real impact. Here are ten times that local civic hackers used open city data in their work. Note: since there were lots of ideas and hackathons, the list below is meant to provide examples, rather than a complete list of projects that utilized civic data.
Tracking Crime

  • One of Baltimore’s civic tech startup success stories is SpotCrime. Colin Drane created the service to show where crime is happening in a neighborhood, and it is used by big broadcasters.
  • On her blog, civic hacker Ellen Worthing created a list and map of Baltimore homicides. Worthing has tracked crime in the city for years. A frequent participant at civic hacking events, we’ve also highlighted her efforts using OpenBaltimore to map crime. The list and map provide a look at the scope of violent crime in Baltimore.

Baltimore Tax Credit Map. Racking up wins at a series of hackathons including HopHacks and the Baltimore Hackathon, Ryan J. Smith created a map to help residents identify whether they were eligible for the state’s many property tax credits. He eventually joined Johns Hopkins’ Social Innovation Lab to expand the effort.
Baltimore Vacants. During weekend hackathons, Shea Frederick built out, which maps the city’s vacant properties. Next, he decided to take one of those dots off the map. In a Baltimore profile from 2014, Frederick told reporter Andrew Zaleski about his rehab effort through a house he purchased via the city’s Vacants to Value program. It was one of a number of impacts for Frederick, who also created the app Spot Agent to help people find safe parking.
Expungement. The process of (legally) erasing offenses from a criminal record that would hold people back from jobs or education, has been a topic of interest for many civic hackers. It’s a process involving lots of paperwork that can be cumbersome. To address the issue, Matthew Stubenberg created Maryland Expungement, which was used at the city Public Defender’s office.
Vital Signs. At the University of Baltimore’s Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Instiute, Seema Iyer and her team work to provide data about city life at a neighborhood level with a new report every year. While it expands and is often cited locally, the data became frequently sought by the national media in the wake of the unrest following Freddie Gray’s death.
Open Street Map. Among his many projects, Elliott Plack led an effort to put Baltimore on OpenStreetMap. He also managed to get the city to release some new data in the process.
Bus Tracking. Chris Whong has been at the center of many civic hacking efforts in Baltimore, but the quick impact of a bus tracker in 2015 was particularly notable. Complaints were widespread when MTA released a public beta of an app to show the location of buses. Whong, with the help of Shea Frederick, jumped in to create his own map. He wanted to show that the data was usable, even if the MTA’s tool had bugs. That caught the attention of Montreal-based TransitApp, which then added the data to its own wider transit tracking capabilities. The message from the players in the saga: Agencies should focus on improving and releasing good data, rather than creating their own tools.
Restaurant Inspections. Matthew Eierman founded the startup HDScores to make health department data about restaurants more easily accessible. The startup got traction by displaying data from areas around the country, and landed a deal with Yelp. But Baltimore’s data wasn’t available. It took a working group that Eierman was a member of, as well as a push through City Hall from Councilman Scott and other leaders, but the data was ultimately released last year.
Parks. The city itself held a civic hackathon in 2013, aimed at improving parks. One team mapped invasive vines in Gwynns Falls Park.

Companies: Socrata / HDScores / SpotAgent /

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