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A Smarter Baltimore, Defined

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, January 19 2011

Photo: Iracaz / Wikimedia
The city of Baltimore should expand its use of social media and allow various agencies' databases to better communicate with one another, according to a report prepared for the city by IBM and paid for by a grant from IBM's Smarter Cities program.

The city of Baltimore should institute a wide range of changes to how it uses technology, from having police officers interact with citizens on Facebook to creating a public open data portal, according to a report prepared for the city by IBM as part of the tech giant's "Smarter Cities" program.

A team of IBM consultants providing advice to Baltimore, Md., as part of Smarter Cities, a program in which IBMers take three weeks to research and deliver a set of strategic recommendations on how a city can use technology to address specific issues — public safety and youth services, in Baltimore's case — delivered the report in November. The report, which is 163 pages if you count appendixes, is the first in-depth output from the program as applied in a major American city.

The Facebook suggestion, specifically, having officers monitor neighborhood Facebook sites, email lists and other online community resources, was part of a larger plan addressing public safety that had more to do with collecting, analyzing and disseminating real-time crime data to police on their handheld devices than it did with social media. However, Baltimore Deputy Mayor Chris Thomaskutty says the city does want to open up more avenues of communication between citizens and police.
"There's not really a follow-up or a feedback loop to the citizen on the crime side," said Thomaskutty, the city's deputy mayor for public safety and operations. "That's something we're trying to think about. Would that help us with people's perception of crime in the city?"

The city could also do a better job of allowing citizens to track the outcomes of 311 calls, according to the report — something Thomaskutty said Baltimore officials were also taking to heart.

The report varied in focus from bone-dry discussion of how to improve enterprise IT infrastructure to the creation of a central "data warehouse" for city agencies and a data portal for citizens and third-party developers, but a recurring theme was creating room for citizens to track what their government was doing and make more informed decisions based on data that government has.

"IBM realizes that improving information management and technology are only part of a broader solution to address public safety issues in cities," reads one section of the report. "There are significant and impactful roles that citizens and businesses can play as well. How might parents be enabled to contribute, once they are given improved access to wide-ranging information about their children? The net is that tremendous potential exists for everyday citizens and the private sector to extend the impact of technology solutions on public safety."

These "close the loop" suggestions — share data, hold apps contests, be transparent, communicate on social media — sound familiar to anyone who spends time with the transnational tribe of people who are trying to bring 21st-century technology to state and local government.

What's different here is that these suggestions are coming from IBM, as part of a formal process that, while it cost Baltimore nothing, the city had to apply to partake in. It doesn't take much to imagine that they carry more weight as a result.

The report also recommends that Baltimore simplify its network of tip lines and 311 call centers, and create an easier feedback loop for citizens to find out how the city is handing a tip or a complaint.

As with any report, there's a broad gap between what a government is told and what it's actually going to do. In Baltimore's case, IBM consultants affirmed much of what the city was already thinking, Thomaskutty said.

Many of the recommendations made in the report were things the city was already thinking about. IBM suggested Baltimore hire a chief information officer; Rico Singleton, formerly a deputy CIO in New York State, began working as Baltimore's CIO in mid-December. The consultants' report recommends creating an open data portal; the city is developing one that's close to beginning a beta.

Baltimore has a long history of city management open to deploying technology. CitiStat, the software for measuring the performance of city agencies by tracking related statistics, has been used there for years. Baltimore police also have "side partner" BlackBerry devices designed to allow them to do anything from check license plate numbers to collect photo evidence at a scene.

"Everything we're doing has a heavy technology component," Baltimore Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty told me Jan. 6, "From our 311 system to how we're deploying cops based on time trends."

It was, he said, a no-brainer to seek IBM's help and advice on how to adopt new technology practices. But not everyone is satisfied with the current city administration's use of technology.

Dave Troy, a Baltimore-based entrepreneur and developer who spearheaded the city's entry into competition for the installation of Google-provided broadband Internet access, doesn't think the city will make dramatic shifts in policy, such as changing data collection methods to capture data that is more useful.

It's an election year in Baltimore, and earlier this month, Troy, a prominent figure in the city's tech community, announced his support for mayoral candidate Otis Rolley III over Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"Open government and Gov 2.0 isn't about what you have, it's about a complete shift in mindset in terms of changing the way you deliver services and manage data," Troy told me.

"One of the reasons I think we need a different mayor involved is the vision necessary to do that kind of thing just isn't in place right now," he added.

A possible rebuttal to that statement may be found when the city launches its open data portal, or in the work produced by Singleton, the new CIO, who started just last month.

And, here's the report. See anything? Share your insight or post it in the comments.

Smarter Cities Challenge_IBM