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Baltimore County launches open data portal with promise of more stats, budget transparency in the future

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and others in the administration sit at a BCSTAT meeting. BCSTAT is the county's data-driven management approach.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and others in the administration sit at a BCSTAT meeting. BCSTAT is the county's data-driven management approach.(Courtesy Photo/Baltimore County / HANDOUT)

Baltimore County officials on Wednesday formally announced BCSTAT, a management program that is using data collected by county agencies to drive decisions and is making the data available to the public.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in an interview that he wants his administration to hold itself accountable, and that actions that improve transparency, like publishing open budget tools, help with that objective.

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“But holding ourselves accountable by measuring what we’re doing and sharing that with the public is another important part of excellence in governance and transparency and responsiveness,” Olszewski said.

BCSTAT operates within the county’s Office of Government Reform and Strategic Initiatives, which did not exist in prior administrations. The office is headed by Elisabeth Sachs, who previously worked as the director of Olszewski’s transition team and as a managing partner at Long Point Strategies.

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The BCSTAT team is made up of four analysts who report to the county’s first chief data and performance officer, Momen Abukhdeir. The group has already begun meeting with three county departments, and Abukhdeir said it would be in contact with all county departments by the end of 2020.

The Office of Government Reform and Strategic Initiatives was allocated $1.2 million in the 2020 budget, according to Baltimore County’s budget platform. As of March 1, it had used $340,148, or about 29%, of its allocated budget.

About $400,000 of the office’s total budget is devoted to BCSTAT, county officials said.

BCSTAT team members have met already with the Department of Corrections, the Department of Aging and the Fire Department.

“Everyone wants to know the condition of their agency, but not everyone knows what skill set they need to analyze data. A lot of the data that we look at is data that for the first time the department has seen in this matter. They’re willing to work with us,” Abukhdeir said.

In addition to tracking and analyzing data from individual departments, BCSTAT is tracking certain county priorities — the first being the opioid epidemic. Baltimore County sees the second-highest number of overdose deaths in Maryland; Olszewski has made addressing the crisis one of his priorities as county executive. Last year, Baltimore County saw 202 deaths and 858 overdoses through mid-September.

Other cross-departmental analyses are in the works, too, Sachs said. She said a second one, focusing on housing and homelessness, transportation or public safety, would be coming by April or May.

Open data process

Baltimore County’s open budget tool, launched last summer, falls under the “BCSTAT umbrella," Sachs said. The online tool allows users to look at how much money was appropriated to each department by the county budget, and to compare that with how much money has been spent during the fiscal year.

Going forward, with new fiscal year budgets, users will be able to “drill down to some contract-level information,” Sachs said.

Sean Naron, a spokesman for Olszewski’s administration, said some contracts may have to be redacted or otherwise vetted to protect data like medical or public safety information. But Baltimore County will be “making sure that wherever contracts can be made public we will,” Naron said.

“It just goes back to, like, it’s the public’s money. They deserve to know where their dollars are being spent,” Olszewski said.

The available information through BCSTAT currently is presented in what the county is calling “snapshots,” showing data that has already been processed and analyzed. Abukhdeir said he hesitates before publishing raw data, because not everyone knows how to analyze or even understand large data sets. However, there will be a place to request the data behind the snapshots, Naron said.

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Laura Riley, director of the Baltimore County Department of Aging, said her department “collects tons of numbers” but had never really had a process for analyzing data in a systematic way. The department does not have an internal data specialist, Riley said.

The department is also “missing some data” because it doesn’t have ways to collect it. A lot of client information is generated by putting pen on paper, so not every piece of data makes it across the agency, she said. Working with BCSTAT has shown Riley where the department was missing data.

“I think it was enlightening to us, I wouldn’t say it was a kink, but we know now where we need to go back and capture our data and tell our story better,” she said.

One of the outcomes of working with the BCSTAT team has been to solidify an anecdotal belief that the Department of Aging serves more women than men. BCSTAT compared the department’s numbers with census data and found the department “should be serving more men than we do,” Riley said, adding that it is “very likely” there are men in the county who are not using services from the department who would be eligible to do so.

The department is considering changing how it markets its services, Riley said, and working with BCSTAT to track how, if at all, numbers change. She also said the department will be using BCSTAT to see if a pilot program at three senior centers to allow residents as young as 50, rather than 60, to register as members will improve attendance.

“Now that we know what we’re going to be looking at ... I’m excited to see if our efforts will make that needle move,” Riley said.

The Department of Corrections has used BCSTAT to show overtime hours are increasing as positions remain vacant in the department, and the fire department is using it to analyze the coverage areas of its career and volunteer stations.

Baltimore County’s publishing of an open data platform will not be the first time a government in Maryland has posted data online and used it to drive decision-making. Martin O’Malley, when he was mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, introduced CitiStat and later StateStat. The programs have languished, however. Baltimore City’s program does not appear to have published a report since 2017, and only some new data is currently available online.

StateStat was replaced by Gov. Larry Hogan with the Governor’s Office of Performance Improvement, though its budget was cut in half and staffing reduced.

Abukhdeir, who worked in CitiStat, said he wants to create “a culture around data” in county government, so that BCSTAT doesn’t languish like other open data tools have. Part of that, he said, could involve individual departments hiring data people internally.

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“It will be a success for me if, after I leave, the departments are having internal meetings around data,” he said.

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