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Open Data Portal Launches in Baltimore

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, January 26 2011

The City of Baltimore has, as long anticipated, started opening up its data through an open data portal, the city announced today.

The city is releasing its data using Socrata, a service that offers tools to store, filter, analyze, visualize and share information on the web. More importantly, applications can access that data on the fly using Socrata's API, which opens the door for developers to build tools similar to the ones that are making life more interesting and sometimes easier in cities like New York City, Seattle, Wa., Portland, Ore., and Boston, Mass.

According to a press release, each city department has 30 days to identify all the datasets it maintains, which are public, and which aren't. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plan also includes having each agency pick an open data coordinator responsible for ensuring the data's accuracy, integrity, and availability — or, as the city put it, "to ensure the information provided in the data sets is accurate, clear, complete, unbiased, and reliable."

The datasets that are available right now mostly appear to be shapefiles, the geographic layers that developers use as the basic maps on which other data is displayed. However, there are some interesting tools for developers to play with right off the bat, including a dataset of all calls to the city's non-emergency 311 hotline since January 2010 and another set that shows information on taxes owed and taxes due for what appears to be every piece of property in the city.

"With OpenBaltimore, the city government will begin sharing data with the public in an unprecedented way," Rawlings-Blake said, according to a press release. "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."

Update: Responding to an e-mail, a city spokesman writes that city departments will only issue raw data through OpenBaltimore, and won't develop other tools or web sites to do the same job. Freedom of Information Law requests will continue to go through the city's law department, according to the spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty.

One potential snag stands out in the wording of the press release: "Each department will take prompt steps to make data available exclusively through OpenBaltimore for public access."
The mention of "exclusivity" makes me wonder if that means the city will change how it honors public records requests if they are related to datasets made public through Open Baltimore. I've placed a call and email to the city press office and will update this post if/when I hear back.

An open data portal was one of the recommendations that a team of IBM consultants made to Baltimore as part of its Smarter Cities program, in which the city participated last year. But by the time the Smarter Cities report made it into the city's hands, in November, the city already appeared to be working on a portal.