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"A Whole Lot of Things All at the Same Time:" A Q&A with Baltimore CIO Chris Tonjes

BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, February 14 2013

Baltimore at night. Photo: ebmorse / Flickr

Chris Tonjes took charge of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Information Technology, and its nearly 300 employees, last July.

Baltimore, with a vociferous technology community and a leadership that has grasped at the mantle of innovation before, could join cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco as a capital of civic hacking. But the city's recent tech history has been filled with setbacks — Tonjes' predecessor, Rico Singleton, left after charges of misconduct at a previous job. And Tonjes says Baltimore's tech budget isn't in step with the city's size.

“So I’ve had to learn a little bit of patience,” he says.

He’s also had to deal with staff turnover and a widespread need for upgrades to basic city systems while taking responsibility for the city’s 911 dispatch, 311 call centers, and perhaps the largest street surveillance program in the county. Needless to say, Tonjes is busy. I talked with him this week about making progress in Charm City.

Sam Roudman: To start I’d like to get an overview on some of your priorities: open data, and expanding access to broadband.

Chris Tonjes: About two months ago or three months ago we did an upgrade of our Socrata platform, Open Baltimore. Quite a bit of what we were doing was manual instead of being automated, so we entered in a whole bunch of automated data feeds, and that made the process of gathering data and publishing it in a more timely way a lot faster and a lot better. There are some new features that we put on Open Baltimore like mapping features and shape files.

On top of that, we’ve gathered a group of people together that are going to help us redesign —and I promised this when I got hired, but I’m running a little bit behind schedule— the interface for it and make it easier for people to find information than it is now. Right now it’s kind of a hodgepodge. There’s quite a lot of stuff there, but unless you’re really an enthusiast of it and understand it, it’s not easy to see.

As far as broadband goes, we were the recipients this year of $2 million from the city’s innovation fund to build a fiber ring that’s going to be used eventually to bring more fast internet access to neighborhoods of Baltimore that don’t have it, and also possibly to be used for a pilot for a municipal Wi-Fi network. We expect to break ground on that some time in March or early April, and we also are looking for community partners to extend this out even further.

SR: Do bureaucratic turf wars like the recent lawsuit by the Comptroller’s office to control telephony slow down the work you’re doing? [The City Comptroller went to court in an attempt to take over an upgrade to the city's telephone system.]

CT: I don’t really consider the controversy around that to be an impediment to progress. It’s just part of change, and when people are very, very wedded to the status quo, if you don’t present change to them in sort of bite size pieces it could be rather overwhelming. Certainly that could be what’s happening. Not really an impediment, just something I have to deal with.

SR: What do you think are sort of the difference between running a city IT department today as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago?

CT: The emphasis 10 or 15 years ago was all on operational things, on keeping things running. The new emphasis is on implementation, on integration, on helping people solve specific problems, it’s much more customer facing, and less data center-y —if you know what I mean — than it was 15 years ago. We need people who are good communicators and good listeners. The consumerization of IT has really, really changed the whole face of an IT department.

SR:What are the budget constraints of Baltimore compared to other IT departments like say DC?

CT: Our budget is very small. In addition to doing IT we’re also responsible for call taking here. We have 911 and 311 that are part of our agency. So we have about a $24 million budget. And of that budget, $8 million of that is really exclusively devoted to IT. In DC, their central IT agency’s budget is much larger, and also the surrounding jurisdictions have much larger IT budgets than ours... We just have to be really, really prudent about how we spend our money, and we have to keep our operations costs as low as we possibly can.

SR: What are some of those infrastructure projects you’re working on?

We’ve got a couple of tax system modernization projects going on. We have a water billing system modernization project that’s about to start. We’re going to be overhauling the city’s website- quite a few things that are going on. Eventually we’ll be changing the city’s online permitting and plan review software.

SR:Do you plan on holding any civic hacks?

CT: We want to have an app contest. We have a community partner that we’re working with. We’ve come up what we think is a really great theme for it. We just have to get all the pieces put together and the logistics around that. This is the first time that we’ve done this, it’s taken a little longer to get off the ground than is optimal and certainly longer than I expected, but we’re really excited about that. And I can’t share too much information because we’re still working with our community and governmental partners to iron out what this will look like. ..I want to make it easy for people to understand what the government is doing. I want to make it easy for people to voice their opinions, I wanna make it also easy for people to give us feedback on the service that we’re providing.

SR: Where are you seeing for Baltimore 8 or 10 months from now? What’s your department timeline?

CT: 8 to 10 months from now, what I expect is to have a lot of our key hires done. To have come up with new job descriptions for all of the IT folks that are gonna be hired by the city that are in the city. We have a number of services contracts that we hope to have RFP’s out on the street for, I don’t know if they’ll be awarded, but they’ll definitely be out on the street in 8 to 10 months. And we’re revamping our model for a lot of the services that we deliver, and I expect to have a lot of those things in place.

In a lot of ways we’re a work in progress, we’re doing a whole lot of things all at the same time. We have been for quite a while. Some of those things have not borne fruit in a public way, because we’ve spent a lot of time working on infrastructure and behind the scene things. Pretty soon people will start seeing a steady stream of improvements. And you know what’s really important to me is that we’re rebuilding our team and we’re rebuilding our capacity, and we’re going to get to the place where we can be the smartest people in the room and provide the best services.