Data, Design, and Collaboration: How Baltimore is Innovating During a Pandemic

By Betsy Gardner • AUGUST 26, 2020

Finding and fixing inequities in 311 responses. Conducting outreach with youth interested in criminal justice reform. Standing up a teleworking tracking system for city employees.

To say that Baltimore’s Office of Performance and Innovation (OPI) has been busy is an understatement. The team has been working on all of the above — and more — during the last several months of the pandemic. Thankfully, Director Dan Hymowitz and Deputy Directors Emily Ianacone and Justin Elszasz were able to spare some time to talk with Data-Smart about the transition to remote work, their commitment to supporting Baltimore city government's equity goals, and how COVID-19 has required “hasty innovation.”

OPI is an integration of two offices, CitiStat and the city’s innovation team (i-Team), which were combined by Mayor Bernard Young in May 2019. Hymowitz described the integration as “exactly the right move,” as it knit together the i-Team’s human-centered design skills with the CitiStat team’s performance management work. OPI also hosts Baltimore’s Data Fellows Program, a more recent initiative that embeds data analysts in different city agencies. “We are built around driving progress using data and human-centered design to try and improve issues around mayoral priorities,” said Hymowitz.

But less than a year after the offices combined, the team went through another upheaval as the novel coronavirus forced everyone to shelter in place and work from home. The city relied heavily on OPI during the transition to working remotely; there were many operational pieces that needed to be better understood and identified with data. Prior to the pandemic, there was no official teleworking policy for city employees. OPI quickly stood up a new internal tracking system to help city leadership understand the new, remote workflow. In real time, the system tracks who is working and from where, including who is coming into a physical office. It also tracks if anyone is out sick; this helps map out what city services are being impacted and how residents are being affected.

In addition to the new internal systems, the city quickly tapped OPI to help with external dashboards and messaging around the pandemic. As the civic design lead for the team, Ianacone helped the city with communications, designing safety missives in the early days of Baltimore’s stay-at-home orders. Working with the city's COVID-19 communications team, she organized focus groups during the early weeks using human-centered design best practices to reach out and engage Black and Latinx communities who were disproportionately impacted by the virus. “We need to be data-driven and need to get the communication right,” said Elszasz. “Data and design have never been more important.”

OPI also helped distribute information through public dashboards; working in collaboration with the Baltimore health department, data analysts from OPI helped to make data about COVID-19 and the city's response to the pandemic accessible to the public. The team also leapt to help with the newly-expanded food distribution initiative. About 20 percent of the city’s population is under 18 years old, and about 15 percent is over age 65, two categories that are at even higher risk for food insecurity during the pandemic. The public program needed a data management system to organize the services, especially as distribution site and food availability regularly fluctuates and requires constant data updating. OPI quickly worked with the Baltimore Department of Planning and community organizations to get accurate, timely information out to residents.

Screenshot of Baltimore's COVID-19 food sites

While OPI was assisting with these new and different pandemic demands, they were also following the city’s overall move toward racial equity; OPI felt it was important to center equity goals across their work and to support Baltimore's objective to make the city more equitable for all residents. This became all the more urgent after Baltimore passed a city Equity Ordinance in 2018 — a key step in a majority Black city which was the site of major protests after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. However, the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on people of color and the most recent acts of police brutality against Black Americans pushed OPI’s equity focus into overdrive.

For example, the i-Team has been working with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Baltimore Police Department’s policy team, who are rewriting the policies on how officers interact with youth. They are also partnering with youth justice stakeholders on diversion programs. “Research has shown that recidivism is higher when youth go through a more formalized criminal justice process and are put in detention,” said Ianacone, “So we’re working with these different partners to help with the new Youth Interactions policy which is going out for public comment this fall. We’re helping them think through new ways to increase both the amount of comments and the quality of the feedback.” One of the ways they’re doing this is by paying Baltimore youth to help them design and facilitate the public feedback sessions once the policy is out for public comment.

The OPI team also helped address inequities in how some services were being delivered in different parts of the city. Pre-pandemic, in response to an enormous backlog of 311 cleaning work, Mayor Young launched an initiative to respond to all overdue cleaning requests. OPI developed a CleanStat dashboard to help track progress on when and where work is done in the city, and through this data mapping, OPI was able to identify that the way that sanitation crews were being deployed meant that different areas were getting better services. Once OPI saw this in the data, they were able to inform the city and helped the Department of Public Works develop a new sanitation deployment strategy that was focused on “clusters,” which allowed the crews to be more efficient and equitable. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has impacted services and the city hasn’t quite responded to all overdue requests, but identifying and correcting the inequities will have lasting impacts post-pandemic.

Baltimore Clean Stat dashboard

Of course, equity and the pandemic are not two separate issues, and are unfortunately tied together by the high rates of COVID-19 among communities of color. Early in the pandemic, cases and tests weren’t all tracked by race/ethnicity. Following calls by leaders from the state legislature and the city council to address this, the OPI team worked with the Health Department to track and expose this inequity by publishing racial impact data. “It was something we were all really concerned about,” said Hymowitz.

Moving and working at this speed, and on such heavy issues, hasn’t been easy. “The first few weeks of the pandemic were chaotic,” according to Ianacone. But the team is proud of what they have done, and are committed to carrying this work forward into the post-pandemic new normal. And the team’s work is not going unnoticed: earlier this year, Baltimore made the What Works Cities Certification Honor Roll in recognition of its data-driven leadership. According to Elszasz, there is an important lesson for cities here: “One thing I hope people take away from this is that change can happen fast if you want it to.”

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.