Big data and open data being the hot topics they are, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the role of “chief data officer” was created. San Francisco created the position, Philadelphia has one, and Chicago will likely replace outgoing CDO Brett Goldstein soon. And on June 1, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Heather Hudson as Baltimore's first chief data officer. Hudson, who started her new role on May 20, spent the past two years as the IT project manager in the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology.

In addition to continuing her work on the city's open data portal, OpenBaltimore, Hudson will be responsible for data warehousing and heading big data and business intelligence efforts in her new role.

There has been debate as to whether a chief data officer is a necessary position. Forrester Analyst Jennifer Belissent argued in a blog post that the new position is unnecessary in the public sector because the responsibilities fall under the purview of the CIO. She suggests that a working group would be a better solution. Industry Analyst Peter Aiken argued that the position is now more needed than ever because a CIO’s job function is so broad that an organization needs a specialist who knows data.

In Baltimore, Hudson said, there’s a definite need for a chief data officer because getting the organization’s data in order is such a big undertaking. In fact, she said, when she joined the city two years ago from her position as an IT project manager and programmer with NASA, maintaining the city’s open data effort was to be one of her main responsibilities. She quickly saw, however, that there were problems to overcome before the real work could begin.

Like many cities, Baltimore is budget constrained and wrestling with old mainframe systems, Hudson explained. Getting data out of those systems is a challenge, she said, and so is educating employees on the importance of open data.

Not everyone understood how open data worked, she said, and even today she must explain to some departments how and why open data works. “When I would go to agencies and ask them for data for OpenBaltimore they would give me these summarized reports,” she said. When she explained that she needed the raw data, some workers still didn’t understand. Some of the responses Hudson got, she said, sounded like, “Well, what is the public going to do with that?” and “What is the point?” and “That’s not even interesting.”

Part of the problem is budget limitations, she said. Government workers are as busy now as they’ve ever been, so when they get a request for data for OpenBaltimore, it doesn’t necessarily go to the top of their to-do list. Once she’s able to demonstrate that the work being done by OpenBaltimore could eventually make everyone’s jobs easier, however, she usually gets the support she’s looking for.

Hudson pointed to Philadelphia’s “Sheltr” app as an example. The app allows smartphone users to find services for homeless people, such as shelters or soup kitchens. The app was made possible by Philadelphia’s open data effort, which released the raw data pertaining to those services and locations. Hudson said she wanted a similar app for Baltimore, and after the usual initial confusion while trying to get the data from the responsible department, she showed the agency’s director the Sheltr app and that’s when the light when on. The director loved the app, Hudson said. The raw data for homeless services got released a few months ago and during the June 1 and 2 Hack For Change Baltimore event, a team of developers used the data to essentially replicate the Sheltr app being used in Philadelphia, for Baltimore.

Sometimes, Hudson said, open data can teach a city unexpected lessons. In February, a parking app called SpotAgent was released for use in Baltimore. The app helped users avoid parking tickets. By using the city’s open parking ticket data, which is updated daily, the developer could predict how safe a given parking spot was during a certain time from receiving a parking ticket. As it turned out, the app worked a little too well at first, Hudson said. “Then someone in our department of transportation realized we shouldn’t be that predictable,” she said. As a result, meter maids started randomizing their routes. The app's creator was a little disappointed, Hudson said.

Open data is part of her new position, Hudson said, but her main efforts will be focused on business intelligence, big data and transitioning Baltimore’s CitiStat performance measurement program to modern technology. “I’m anxious to get going, but I’m also a little bit humbled because it’s a massive effort ahead of me,” she said. “I’ve laid out the plan, but this isn’t going to be a quick transition. But I’m excited. This is something that’s going to benefit the city and the community enormously when we’re sharing data and doing true analytics with it.”

Photo from Shutterstock.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com