SmartLogic integrated Elasticsearch and added a number of new features to the Baltimore City Health Department's CHARMcare site, improving usability, filtering, and relevance of search results.



The Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD) is the oldest continuously-operating health department in the United States, formed in 1793. Its mission is to protect health, eliminate disparities, and enhance the wellbeing of everyone in our community through education, coordination, advocacy, and direct service delivery.

CHARMcare home page
CHARMcare home page

One of BHCD’s offerings is an open-source directory, CHARMcare, that guides users to free or low-cost resources in Baltimore. The site is a custom-designed search engine for Baltimore social services that includes info on emergency help, education, food access, employment and legal assistance organizations. Its results can be filtered by proximity and keywords, and a built-in Google Translate function makes the website accessible to a broader group of non-English speakers.

Usability Improvements for CHARMcare

BCHD originally launched CHARMCare in 2016. SmartLogic began working on CHARMCare in December 2019; previously, teams at Code for America and fellow Baltimore dev firm Fearless worked on the project.

As a partner, SmartLogic has skillfully balanced the technical and community needs of CHARMCare, said Mike Fried, BCHD’s chief information officer.

We have a strong commitment at the health department to being innovative, being open, being data-driven, but also a commitment to working with local partners. SmartLogic has been a fantastic partnership because I think they really embody what’s best about the Baltimore technology ecosystem, where they have just incredible depth and technical strength and are able to be incredibly agile and responsive.
— Mike Fried, Chief Information Officer, BCHD

SmartLogic’s lead Ruby on Rails developer quickly identified that the project’s search feature needed to be enhanced. Specifically, our team had its eyes set on integrating AWS Elasticsearch into CHARMCare. Elasticsearch makes it easier to build out complicated search features at a very high degree of performance, versus building out large or complex features with raw PostgreSQL queries.

CHARMcare search results
CHARMcare search results

Our team was able to implement a number of improvements to the CHARMcare application functionality, including:

  • File uploads as resources for locations
  • Accessibility features for locations and services
  • Specific tagging support for COVID-19 resources and services
  • Complex scoring of documents to allow ranked search results
  • Location-based search to allow distance-sorted results
  • Category cleanup and management to improve tagging of categories to locations and services for better appearance in search

Surfacing Critical Resources During the Pandemic

The increased reliance on social services during the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of SmartLogic’s ability to quickly translate user needs into technical fixes for CHARMCare. One search feature that SmartLogic incorporated was specifying a particular resource as COVID-19-related and then prioritizing it in the order of the results for users.

Other changes included UI updates, cleaning up the homepage and a search-by-distance tool. Separate from CHARMCare’s front-end UI code that serves constituents, the site has an admin-facing interface where community stakeholders add information about their services.

How does the team prioritize what to work on next? CHARMCare hosts website analytic tool Hotjar on its site to track user satisfaction. BCHD is also getting “constant feedback” from people on the front lines of Baltimore’s social services.

According to Mike Fried, over the past year, CHARMCare has “shifted a little bit from that upfront design of ‘What is it that we want to do in the world?’ to QA and ongoing improvement, which is really where we want this to be,” he added. “We want this [project] to be part of the ethos of this ecosystem.”