Martin O’Malley on cities and data

James Riley
Editorial Director

Martin O’Malley is a former Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of the US state of Maryland. He was also a candidate in the 2016 presidential nomination race for the Democratic Party.

As a mayor and as a governor, Mr O’Malley was an advocate for smarter data policies by cities, and in particular the smarter use of geographic information systems.

Even as a presidential candidate, these themes were a policy priority on the stump, if only because he has track record of successfully building social, economic and even law enforcement programs based on better use of data.

He serves as the chair of the MetroLab Network, which is a group of more than 35 city-university partnerships. The network was launched in late 2015, having grown out of an Obama administration smart cities policy initiative.

Its aim is to drive better use of data in city policy through better collaborations between city policy-makers and university researchers. The University of Chicago’s director of the Centre for Data Science and Public Policy Rayid Ghani – who was also chief data scientist for Obama for America 2012 – is also on the MetroLab Network board.

I met with Martin O’Malley recently when he was here for a series of smart cities forums on behalf of geographic information systems specialist Esri Australia (Mr O’Malley is a consultant to Esri.)


This is a fascinating interview. Speaking to someone who has been a candidate for anything is interesting. Getting elected is hard, and the people who get there have ideas and energy.

But interviewing a presidential candidate is a whole other thing.

It’s like talking to someone who has been to the circus, someone who has not just seen inside the Big Top, but who got to hang out with the dancing elephants too.

Mr O’Malley dropped out of the race relatively early, having struggled to break threshold in the early states. He finished third in Iowa. It was a weird Democratic primary season, if only because Hilary Clinton’s machine and money was intimidating from the got-go.

I enjoyed this interview very much, because it covers not just broad-spectrum politics, but also the politics of data policy. The first part deals with new Trumpian challenges and the second with data.

Mr O’Malley was the first mayor in the US to introduce GIS systems to the whole-of-government – to everything. Starting in the late nineties, he just began to measure everything – “not just trash and transportation, I mean every department.”

In the early 2000’s his administration as mayor of Baltimore was given an innovations in government award from the Kennedy School at Harvard, and he has been pressing the GIS and data policy hard ever since. While in Australia, Mr O’Malley met with various ministers including Assistant Minister for Cities Angus Taylor and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.

Mr O’Malley – like many others – says the 2016 presidential election was characterised by anger and protest. In the 12 years leading up to the 2016 election, 70 per cent of Americans had seen their real income either remain flat or decline.

If politics was being viewed as a cancer by a disaffected electorate, Trump was meant to be the chemotherapy. But no matter how much you describe ‘chemo’ as poison, that poison was still more attractive to many voters. Politicians are now faced with a “colossal challenge” he says.

“What we are experiencing now in our country is a presidency that is totally unprecedented in our nation’s 250 year history,” Mr O’Malley said.

When we’re talking about digital disruption, and of digital transformation, Mr O’Malley says education and training is a key to improving lives, and confronting change.

“We know that as technology improves it is going to eliminate some jobs, just as it did in the industrial era,” he said.

“What we can learn from the immediate past is that a delta is being created between the skills that the new economy demands, and the skills level of our people. And we have to cross that delta.”

“If you want to put it in binary terms, you’re not going to create the skills of tomorrow by making it harder for people to get the training, or to send their kids to college to get those skills.”

The section of this interview on the MetroLab Network should be instructive for Australia. As a policy guide, it ticks a lot of boxes. In a city/university partnership, the universities can provide the research grunt for data-enabled policy and the cities provide the test-bed.

And by creating a network of these collaborations, Mr O’Malley says city policy-makers should be able to share experience, speed iterations and accelerate innovations.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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