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Location: Home / Technology / In the push for equitable and transparent governance, more cities turn to data

In the push for equitable and transparent governance, more cities turn to data

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Editor's note: This story is part of a series on the trends that will shape the smart cities industry in 2022. ​​​​​​

Denver is in its first year of using a data hub to support agencies that have traditionally operated using a siloed approach to data management.

The new hub, implemented by the city, its county and the Seattle-based company Slalom LLC, is a central and searchable repository that allows officials within the city and its county to mix datasets to create advanced analytics and provide faster access to the most current and accurate data available, said Paul Kresser, the city's first chief data officer in an email. The city collects data on everything from bike racks to traffic signals to water quality.

The city uses the hub to assist its smart cities initiatives and make more data-informed decisions surrounding equity, mobility, affordability and neighborhood engagement, he said. The hub, he believes, will spur cross-departmental collaboration that could help address complex social and economic issues such as better serving people experiencing homelessness.

"The previous technology and processes were failing to keep pace with the analytic demands from city agencies and end-users," Kresser said. "Analyzing and applying predictive analytics to our data allows us to innovate and provide even better services."

Denver is one of a growing number of cities using data to understand their problems, develop solutions and evaluate whether those solutions are working and equitable, said Lauren Su, director of certification at What Works Cities, in an email. The What Works Cities initiative was launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies and led by Results for America to enhance cities' use of data and evidence.

Since 2015, the percentage of cities that used data to monitor and analyze progress on key goals more than doubled from 30% to 75%, according to findings in a June 2021 report by What Works Cities and the Monitor Institute by Deloitte. As more cities pursue digital transformation, hastened in some cases by the pandemic, a number of challenges stand in their way but they also stand to reap benefits like improvements to budgeting processes, increased transparency for residents, and more equitable city services.

In the push for equitable and transparent governance, more cities turn to data

"Today, data isn’t just a valuable tool for city leaders –⁠ it’s a necessity," said Su.

The percentage of cities with platforms to share data with residents more than tripled from 18% to 67% over the past six years, the report stated. Over half of the officials from the 44 cities surveyed used data to make budgetary decisions, award contracts, and deliver city services more efficiently, effectively, and/or equitably.

By analyzing data, a city could determine how many people were served by a particular program, who did not have access to those services, whether it improved outcomes for residents, and if it was accessible and used in targeted communities, said Su.

Su pointed to a range of examples across the U.S. Little Rock, Arkansas, uses data to help identify and fix broken streetlights. Buffalo, New York, uses it to reduce lead exposure among low-income families. Long Beach, California, used it to support small businesses through the Covid-19 pandemic. And Madison, Wisconsin, is using it to revamp its budget to reflect equity goals.

The embrace of data-informed decision-making

The movement toward data-informed decision-making began around 2013, when cities slowly began hiring again after years of operating with drastically reduced workforces as a result of the 2007 financial crisis, said Su. Newly hired staff took on heavy workloads, she said, but relied on new innovation, data governance, transparency, performance management and program evaluation practices to deliver better and more equitable services.

The pandemic also pushed cities to automate and improve citizen services, said Apurva “Apu” Kumar, CEO of CITYDATA.ai, in an email. The San Francisco-based company provides mobility data for cities.

Government technology has always lagged the industry, Kumar said. While government agencies generate a lot of data, not all agencies are adept at collecting, refining and analyzing both their own and third-party or open data, Kumar said.

During the pandemic, cities leaned on tools like AI chatbots, multilingual mobile apps, virtual meetings, online town halls and engagement through social media. "The resulting digital transformation started to generate even more data, enabling government agencies to put such data to use to improve citizen services," he said.

Cities face numerous challenges when using the data such as disaggregating it by race, ethnic origin, age and neighborhood. Such data could allow officials to see whether a program is working and if services are being delivered to underserved neighborhoods and residents — whereas a citywide metric may hide inequities or fail to tell the whole story.

A city, for instance, may receive a higher number of complaints around sidewalk repair, from overwhelmingly White, wealthier neighborhoods, Su said. But that’s not necessarily where most of the service challenges are.

Evidence-informed approaches are possible for all city governments, said Su. However, larger cities have a leg-up since they tend to have better-funded IT departments and data science teams, said Kumar. Every mayor and city manager in the U.S. knows the value of data-driven decision-making, he said. But mid-sized or small cities may not have the resources to prioritize data.

"We have noticed a size bias or budget bias when it comes to embracing data," said Kumar. "This makes it imperative to find ways to empower mid-to-small cities on tight budgets to utilize data in their processes and daily operations."

Chattanooga, Tennessee, is among the mid-sized cities that have embraced the use of data. It collects data when police respond to 911 calls; when a resident submits a request for a pothole repair; or when someone is cited for a code violation, said Andrew Sevigny, director of the city’s performance management and open data office, in an email.

The city’s open data program has grown since its 2014 launch. It allows residents and officials to analyze the city’s budget and spending. It also puts the historic and near real-time data in an easy-to-use format so departments can gain insight and ultimately be better stewards of taxpayer money, he said.

“Data can help to highlight inequities that no one may be thinking of. Data can help in storytelling about lived experiences Chattanoogans have in the city,” said Sevigny.