In the last two years, the City of Baltimore has made progress improving access to City services through the use of technology, specifically with web and mobile applications. At the epicenter of this progress has been the launch of Open Baltimore and the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, two sources where data can be searched and mined for use in innovative projects.
By 2012, Baltimore had become one of only a handful of U.S. cities to use the specifications set by Open311 to create a mobile app, Baltimore 311. The Baltimore 311 app allows users to report non-emergencies such as potholes and fallen trees, view problems reported by other users, and check the status of specific requests. The mobile app is straightforward and supplements the web version, which also maps service calls online. The app's design has room for improvement, but the ability to receive real-time status updates is a significant step forward in government accessibility.
Since the launch of Baltimore 311, the City of Baltimore has continued to experiment with technology, including the use of civic hackers, in an attempt to improve access to other areas of government. However, web apps and mobile apps do not fully replace traditional methods of accessing and improving City services. Some projects require hands-on action. In 2013, Baltimore’s Mayor’s Office of IT (MOIT) and the former Greater Baltimore Technology Council (gb.tc) hosted Hack the Parks, an event which resulted in five tech and non-tech projects being awarded city grants. The projects resulting from Hack the Parks were intended to solve a range of maintenance and sustainability issues facing the city’s parks and recreation facilities, from mapping invasive vines in Leakin Park to planting native mushrooms as a way of preventing soil erosion in Druid Hill Park.
Oddly, there’s not much evidence showing how many of Baltimore's civic hacking projects became permanent projects or failed to launch. Perhaps someone should study the birth and death rates of hackathon projects, because something is amiss. Links to a web app for tracking trees in the city are broken, and other applications appear to be either in beta or non-existent. It appears that gb.tc had issues with funding, but hopefully it is restructuring under local incubator and tech campus, Betamore, will result in a renewed vigor for civic hacking in Baltimore. Months ago, MOIT apparently released bids for three hackathons to be hosted in Baltimore, but it appears the process has been stalled or reached a dead end, potentially due to the Baltimore tech community preferring to run a more community-oriented, volunteer-based event, if any at all.
Maybe Baltimore still needs a little more hands-on love before it can fully embrace more technology-oriented hacks. Maybe these projects just needed better marketing. Either way, it was disappointing for some of the projects to seemingly disappear.
What urban issues should be hacked in Baltimore, or in your city?
Credits: Images by Jade Clayton. Data linked to sources.