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Data Drives Housing, Planning Decisions in Baltimore

To support its goals and revitalize neighborhoods, the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development uses GIS and location data that keeps records up to date and transparent for all stakeholders.

Row houses in baltimore
Baltimore, Md.
Comprehensive approaches to complex urban problems require comprehensive data, and the actions of the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) demonstrate why and how. The department oversees permits, code enforcement, development and homeownership support programs. By integrating these responsibilities, housing officials believe they can better understand trends and leverage resources to revitalize neighborhoods suffering from historic disinvestment.

In 2019, DHCD released a comprehensive Framework for Community Development, which outlines an investment strategy that is:

  1. Asset-based, meaning investments are prioritized in areas near high-value community assets such as schools, hospitals, etc.;
  2. Place-based, meaning they are focused on building and strengthening entire communities, utilizing an equity lens; and
  3. Whole-block-based, meaning they are focused on outcomes at the block or neighborhood level and not on individual homes or apartments.

“‘Building from strength’ is our tagline,” said Kimberly Rubens, acting chief of policy and partnerships and director of research and analytics for DHCD. With these priorities in mind, the framework identified seven areas spanning 22 neighborhoods across Southeast and Southwest Baltimore, chosen because of their proximity to an anchor for development activity and because they have strong community partnerships.

To support the framework’s goals, DHCD has turned to GIS and location intelligence. Michael Braverman, the head of code enforcement for DHCD at the time, wanted access to a robust GIS tool to be able to leverage information about homes and neighborhoods. Braverman and two of his colleagues developed CoDeMap Classic and then built a 2.0 version with increased mapping options. Together they allow users to find up-to-date information about a property, including sale history, floodplain status, permit and citation history, and rental licensing status, as well as zoning data. Staff now use the platform to inform building or neighborhood interventions such as demolitions.

DHCD has developed a community planning layer on CoDeMap that enables long-term, block-by-block planning directly on the platform. The user-centric 2.0 reforms include thematic grouping of the layers and a range of tools including an application that remembers each user’s preferred GIS layers.

According to Rubens, the CoDeMap platform “allows us to move from the theory of the framework to the practice of actually going into these communities to do the investment work.” The ability to layer data allows DHCD to take insights and discuss priority projects with community representatives in order to identify those with the most potential for positive whole-block outcomes.

Technology facilitates demolition planning, as well as department planning and community engagement and awareness. Community policing takes advantage of mapping to do property-level research for high-profile illegal activities that might be taking place.

The GIS team conducts extensive outreach and training, helping expand the scope and impact of the applications. After the major update in 2020, DHCD trained 500 users in the first few months, and continues to conduct regular trainings to ensure city staff maintain the skills they need to access and navigate the application.

These components of Baltimore’s successes serve as helpful lessons. The project utilized data from various departments and combined it with the end user in mind through map data visualizations that broadly produced insights. Extensive training accelerated use and the ability of city and community officials to access the same understandable data. Rubens emphasizes two other important factors: The data is outward facing, and someone is responsible for making sure it stays current.

Leadership matters, as always. When now-Mayor Brandon Scott served on the City Council, he was trained by Braverman on how to use CoDeMap and is now considered a “super user.” As Rubens noted, “Cities need to make sure we are investing in data systems that are not just functional for a specific agency, but ones that also have interoperability and are not limited to certain users because of their legacy data systems.”

Matt Leger, a research assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center, contributed to this column.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.