It’s no secret cities want to be smarter. Municipalities have spearheaded efforts and initiatives for years to increase and improve services for citizens. But today the term “smart” is synonymous with “big data” and “open data” -- and it effectively raises the bar for city leaders and staff.

On Thursday, a panel of experts offered advice for cities looking to harness existing data for leaner and more evidence-based solutions. The discussion was part of Data Innovation Day, a conference sponsored by the Center for Data Innovation in Washington, D.C. The panel -- Michael Flowers, New York City’s former chief analytics officer; Ian Kalin, Socrata’s director of open data; and Timothy Paydos, IBM’s leader of its World Wide Government Big Data Industry Team -- covered how to use big data and open data at the local level, privacy concerns and other factors.

Flowers, who spent three years in charge of analytics for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said nearly any municipality can launch its own data projects if some basic conditions are met. “The Legos are there,” he said, referring to each city having services tied to data that can be leveraged for better decision-making.

But buy in from leadership is crucial, said Flowers, who credits Bloomberg for backing technology and data initiatives that produced IT enhancement across New York’s departments. Without executive-level support, CIOs and CTOs can find themselves hamstrung with political and internal roadblocks -- impediments that stem more from antiquated, business-as-usual thinking than from an actual lack of resources.

Once leadership is on board, Flowers said city departments must be willing to communicate. He also recommends starting small projects to reduce financial risk and freeing up an IT team to execute as nimbly as possible.

“You have to have this willingness to embed yourself in the culture,” Flowers said. “Without that it’s really hard.”

Kalin said it’s important to realize that cities don't need to have every piece of the puzzle in place before starting a big data project. Additionally, he offered a word of advice in gaining a community’s support and trust when dealing with privacy concerns over data management.

“Everyone at some level is being invaded,” Kalin said, using Google, Facebook and Apple as examples of companies that receive massive amounts of private customer information voluntarily.

Consumers entrust those companies with the private information because of the customer experience they offer in return — essentially trading better services for privacy access, he said. Kalin contrasted buying an iPhone at an Apple store, to a trip to the department of motor vehicles, both offer valuable products, but one delivers a much better customer experience.

“I think [cities] need to recognize that privacy and confidentiality needs to be protected but you also need to recognize that people are giving that information to others for good reason,” he said.

Underscoring the need for collaboration both inside and outside government, panel members unanimously and emphatically endorsed private-public partnerships as the bedrock for smart city growth.

Paydos said governments have reached a choke point where they realize they can't organize quickly enough or innovate creatively enough to match the private tech sector. As a result, he said, the only way forward is public/private collaboration.

“They’ve reached this tipping point where they know that they need to change the way they're doing business,” Paydos said. “It’s all about moving incrementally.”

Government Technology Staff Writer Jason Shueh Jason Shueh  |  Staff Writer

Jason Shueh is a staff writer for Government Technology magazine. His articles and writing have covered numerous subjects, from minute happenings to massive trends. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Shueh grew up in the east bay and Napa Valley, where his family is based. His writing has been published previously in the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Amazon Publishing, Bike Magazine, Diablo Magazine, The Sierra Sun, Nevada Appeal, The Union and the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.