Baltimore adds user interaction to its open data

Collaborative portal to deliver data from every city agency

State and municipal organizations have been following the federal government’s lead on transparency, making data available to the public in formats that allow for its reuse. In some cases, they’re even taking the lead.

Baltimore is one city attempting to take transparency to the next level. The city’s new data portal, OpenBaltimore, aims to serve as a tool for cross-communicating between and among the public and government employees.

“With OpenBaltimore, the city government will begin sharing data with the public in an unprecedented way,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. “Innovative and creative people will now be able to collaborate with government, and hopefully find ways to improve service delivery and save money for taxpayers.”

The beta site, which was announced Jan. 26, includes data from 21 agencies, Rawlings-Blake said in a Government Technology article by Sarah Rich.

All city agencies, departments, boards and commissions are required to make their datasets available to the public. Under the new initiative, each department will have 30 days to establish a list of datasets it maintains and identify which are already available to the public and which are not. The department is then required to provide the data to the public exclusively through the OpenBaltimore site.

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The site offers a variety of reports, including property taxes and crime rates broken down by district. The data will be available in an open format. Users will be able to download the information and search for it using common Web browsers. Government application developers will also be able to use the data to create applications for city residents and businesses. (The site also solicits feedback, under the headline, “Hey you…yeah, you!”)

“The additional functionality and uniqueness that I think is somewhat different is it gives you a tremendous ability to democratize the data and socialize it,” Baltimore’s CIO Rico Singleton told Government Technology. “So you can create your own views, your own use of the data, your own charts. You can share that out to common social networks — whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Digg — and create discussion forums around the data.”

Aside from internal resources, Baltimore didn’t spend a dime to fund the project, Singleton said. The city partnered with data solutions vendor Socrata five days before the launch to add additional functionality to the original platform, built by city IT staff members, according to the Government Technology article. Without the partnership, the city’s IT staff would have needed months to build in the additional functionality, he added.

Eventually Baltimore would like to integrate OpenBaltimore with another data analysis, performance and resource management tool the city uses, Baltimore CitiStat, Singleton said. Functions such as law enforcement and public works have been using Baltimore CitiStat for more than 10 years, and the system has been copied by several other U.S. cities.

Meanwhile, developers have been sharing tips on how to make use of the data Baltimore and other governments make available. In a recent post on GovFresh, developer Mark Head writes about converting geographic information in shapefile formats into a useful format for developers.

“I was thrilled recently to come across some data for the City of Baltimore,” he writes, “and since I know there are some open government developments in the works there, I decided to put together a quick screencast showing how open data – when provided in an easily used format – can form the basis for some pretty useful civic applications.”

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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