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10 ideas from Baltimore leaders on how tech can have a voice at City Hall

From business to development to City Hall processes, a Baltimore stakeholders meeting considered technologists' place in civic life.

Baltimore City Hall. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Technologists and entrepreneurs are reshaping cities like Baltimore with companies that bring new residents and products that change how we interact with the landscape. With a new mayor set to take office in Baltimore following the November 8 general election, it’s worth considering what the tech community wants to see at City Hall.

There’s already energy around using tech to make change. Baltimore is seen as a pioneer in open data efforts, and civic hacking has taken root in various forms as the tech scene has grown. Conversation at a recent Baltimore stakeholder meeting held during Baltimore Innovation Week 2016 indicated that there is more room for the government and tech community to work together.
There appears to be a desire to do so on both sides. As the tech community drives bigger and bigger growth, government is recognizing its importance economically.

“Quite frankly, I think this innovation economy that’s happening organically is the future of the city,” said Bret Schreiber, the director of education and innovation at the Maryland Department of Commerce.

It’s a sentiment we’ve heard quite a bit from other officials. Finding common ground between the two communities may require learning more about each other.

“You have to meet them halfway, too, to fit into their narrative,” he said.

Economic development is one of those narratives that already exists.

Entrepreneurs are creating jobs, but due to the scale, there may need to be more awareness. Tammira Lucas, cofounder of Baltimore Innovation Award-winning Moms as Entrepreneurs, pointed out that efforts like her West Baltimore-based organization’s work to create more small businesses are not always be top of mind when it comes to providing resources when compared with larger corporations.

“What we’re finding is there are a lack of resources to help them get to the next level. … We want to see Main Streets having businesses again,” she said.

One way to offer more support could be through business opportunities with the city. Straighterline founder Burck Smith said he would like his company to work with Maryland colleges on lower-cost courses, and ETC President Deb Tillett talked about a company at the Haven Street incubator that contracts with governments in the Southwest, but not here.

Tillett offered the idea of a program where the city or bigger companies would pilot Baltimore startups’ products, which we’ve seen in a few cases with startups like emocha’s work with the Health Department.

Likewise, Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore President Shannon Landwehr and Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Lauren Hamilton said their organizations stand ready to serve as conduits between the different areas.

Landwehr sees a role “to help the startup community identify, ‘How do you make your product or business available to the larger market?'” That market could be big businesses or the city. 

Another place to bridge a wider conversation is on the question of talent.

While workers tend to get grouped into categories such as tech, there’s a common desire to build a workforce for the future, said Ken Malone of Early Charm Ventures.

“If you ask, ‘Who has a business that requires innovative talent, educated talent and people are creative?’ Everybody’s hand goes up,” he said.

Rather than depending on others to move here, Malone pointed to the work of Code in the Schools and Digital Harbor Foundation to expose students to the kinds of new businesses that are happening. Code in the Schools Communications Director Charlotte James said her organization is working to provide a pipeline for students to intern at local companies but has trouble finding companies willing to take on interns.

“I love that we’re talking about, ‘Let’s foster the talent that we have here in the city,’ but then let’s really do it,” she said.

To understand where startups can solve problems on a government level, the conversation kept circling back to the idea that the two communities can learn from each other.

Baltimore Police Chief for Department of Justice Compliance, Accountability and External Affairs Ganesha Martin was at the meeting ahead of a public session on the Police Department’s use of a new Code for America tool on open data. She wants to implement reforms in a way that probably sounds familiar to startups.

“I think in a government type of way, and for the reforms that I’ve been having to try to figure out at the Police Department with very little resources, I keep coming back to data and business practice efficiency,” she said.

She wants to have a relationship that is “educational” with the tech scene, where the two sides talk on a regular basis.

Bringing change could be as much about how the government works as what it does.

“We have to have a city that must be organized itself so that there truly is a synergistic government. … That’s a thing to advocate for in and of itself,” said Seema Iyer of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.

Companies: Downtown Partnership of Baltimore / Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore / City of Baltimore

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