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OpenGov Champions: Shea Frederick, Baltimore, MD

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Meet Shea Frederick, our latest OpenGov Champion. Last September, Sunlight’s video team -- myself and Associate Video Producer Solay Howell -- spent two days in Baltimore, MD, with Shea to see how he uses city open data to build useful tools for Charm City residents.

One of those tools is baltimorevacants.org, a dynamic map that lets you search and see more than 30,000 vacant houses and vacant lots in Baltimore. To capture on video the source of that data, we drove around Baltimore filming abandoned houses, streets and even entire blocks that are just left to decay, attracting crime and rats.

 

 

Like Shea says in the video, it’s impactful to see 30,000 vacant houses or lots mapped out over the city. But it is even more powerful to see the actual places. I’m still haunted by the sight of all those vacant, rotting houses with boarded up windows and doors we saw all over Baltimore. As a visual storyteller, I could imagine how each one of these houses has a story to tell. Maybe a factory closed, people lost their jobs, packed up and moved, and after enough of their neighbors had left, the ones left behind could not bear to live on an empty street and finally they all went.

Looking at Shea’s work, I realized that data can be used tell a story too, one from real life that literally “connects the dots” and paints with broader strokes to get the full picture. That’s why Shea loves hacking on the open data the City of Baltimore started releasing in 2011: there is always a real life connection to the work he is doing and he can see it all around him.

Another one is an app called Spot Agent that uses parking citation data to warn you if a meter maid might be close by. Then there’s one that uses the city’s 311 data to show the most common problems occurring in any Baltimore neighborhood based on words that appear the most in the service requests, such as “trash,” “rat,” “illegal” or “light.”

He does a lot of this work with the help of other developers and interested citizens, connected through hackathons and other events. There is a vibrant community for this sort of work in Baltimore such that when the city started releasing its data sets through the Open Baltimore portal there already was an active bunch of people ready to go and put it to use. The city has been pleased with that, as these civic hackers can build something for fun and for free in a weekend that would take them weeks, maybe even months to complete and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Shea has been tag-teaming with the city directly, using the data it released and giving the city advice on how the data could be improved upon, mainly that it should be updated in real time instead of doing a one-time dump.

Why does Shea Frederick spend so much of his own time sorting out this data into meaningful, usable formats when he might as well be competing in a cyclocross race somewhere? Well, for one, he loves what he does. And second, he has grown to love Baltimore and wants to give back by giving others tools that can help them connect with what’s happening around the city. This is OpenGov Championship at work: taking data that’s available and putting it to use, and working together with the local government to make it even better.

Our OpenGov Champions are remarkable ordinary people who have done extraordinary things to open up our government. Get inspired by their stories and nominate someone in your community to become an OpenGov Champion.