Transparency to The Wire: Baltimore’s planning lesson for Australia

West Baltimore Station
B-More: non-actors live there too.


Gritty urban crime TV drama The Wire has won millions of fans the world over for its intensely realistic portrayal of the problems and poverty in the US city of Baltimore, but the State of Maryland’s former Secretary of Planning, Richard Hall, isn’t one of them.

As the man who’s spent years implementing policies that revitalise and improve areas and neighbourhoods in a state that’s making a tough transition from an industrial and manufacturing economy to one more based on services, he’s more interested in talking about how earn the trust of communities and maintain a genuine conversation as they necessarily change.

“The Wire is just a TV show that showed the worst of Baltimore, exploited it in my opinion. It was well filmed and well-acted. I think that unfortunately a lot of people watched that show and think that’s what Baltimore is all about and they don’t know the other part,” Hall says frankly.

It’s a straight-up attitude that seems to underpin much of the work he’s doing in his new job as the Executive Director of the Maryland Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a citizen based advocacy group that pushes for transparency and integrity in planning decisions, not to mention economic development.

Hall is in Australia as a guest of geospatial and GIS systems giant ESRI Australia to deliver the keynote address to the Locate 16 conference, the nation’s largest gathering of professionals and stakeholders at the coalface of surveying, planning and community resilience.

And while he’s happy to namedrop his host, the message that he’s really pushing to government professionals and policymakers alike is that for all the hype around smart cities, big data and disruption, it’s transparency and a genuine conversation with the community that delivers.


Being open about Open Data

Hall argues that even though it’s now become much easier to share information “up and down levels of government” there still needs to be an openness in terms of how data is collected, interpreted and used to maintain trust.

He observes that when it comes to policymaking and planning – whether it’s redeveloping an underutilised car park or illustrating the consequences of urban sprawl – people need to be able trust in the evidence used to inform decisions, including feeding grass roots data into models to see how plans stack-up for them.

“If people don’t have faith in what your information and analysis and data is telling you, then the policy you are trying to sell or promote or change [becomes] much harder,” Hall says.

Putting up city and government data to public exposure is a key part of that approach because it can illuminate what’s working well, what isn’t and what the potential benefits or consequences of a decision or policy could be.

“The opportunity is to use a lot of technical technology that’s really advanced over the last several years to better manage the national and built environments and engage citizens in that process,” Hall says.

“Whether it’s providing information about what’s happening now, what current conditions are, how current policies, services or programs are working or how to propose, consider or even simulate new or different policies or services.”

The buzzword (because you just can’t have a technology without one) that Hall uses is ‘Smart Growth’ which is really more about being able to foresee actual outcomes rather than trying to push them to the max on a leap of faith.

Think of it as a near-time reality check to keep decision making and policy grounded in the real world instead of hitching it to a marketing bandwagon that might sound on-message – but no one really knows the ultimate destination of.

Earning trust, or ameliorating previous mistrust among communities and stakeholders – not to mention other tiers of government – is an areas where solid, credible data can play a big role in influencing decisions.

It’s when evidence based policy wins out over policy based evidence.

Hall asserts it’s imperative to be both inclusive and discerning as well as being able to listen to local knowledge that can explain what numbers often can’t.

“The people you are using the data with, you have to work with them – use their data and make it work in [your] system. They have to know that [you] are using their data – and see how [it’s integrated] so there’s an acknowledgement that they know that [you’re] not just academics … or an exercise [but] using on-the-ground information.


That trust thing

Trust, or at least mutual respect, doesn’t just happen spontaneously.

When it comes to planning, Hall says “there’s often a natural tension with the local government that don’t like you looking over their shoulder, especially when it comes to interactions at the state government level.

As a state planner, he says one of the most important elements of Maryland’s data analysis approach was the ability to present a “locally relevant, a compelling story of what we are doing or [why we] want to do something different.”

“[Without] that evidence it would be very hard for people to take our word for it. Without the data, the analysis, the maps and the trust … it would just be our opinion. The evidence shows it’s more than just our opinion.”

Hall uses a term called ‘city-statting’, an approach that was used in Baltimore to put a picture of progress, or otherwise, of City initiatives and programs literally on a map.

“In the US, local governments traditionally control planning, so initially there was a lot of passionate opposition to our state government-driven plans.

“To alleviate the tension, we ensured only the most authoritative data was used, which often involved local government data. This helped ensure our data wasn’t questioned and any arguments were purely about policies.

“We also shared the data-driven smart maps, and the related analysis, with stakeholders to convince them of the benefits of what we were proposing and how it related to their efforts.”


Buy-in can be raucous

However Hall is cautious about attempting to force data out of stakeholders.

“People can be required to give you data, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to work with you to make sure you’re using it correctly [or] that they’ll give you quality data – for example showing you quirks or characteristics that you might need to know,” he says.

“If you have a relationship [with the people] that you are using the data with, on their town or community or their river, they’ll tell you … we learned after many years … [to listen],” Hall says.

He also cautions that software, numbers and systems and the data they generate are only part of the picture.

“It’s easy to go down a path of talking about the latest greatest technology when it comes to geospatial technology and government work, but to me it’s not just about data.

“The debate can get pretty raucous but you have to come back to well informed citizenry and their ability to track progress.”

The Locate 16 conference runs from 12-14 April 2016 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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