Incubating Innovation: Bloomberg Mayors Challenge Profiles, Part 4

This is part four of a series about the 35 cities that have advanced in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. This week, we look at plans from Cary, N.C.; Chelsea, Mass.; Huntington, W.V.; South Bend, Ind.; and Washington, D.C.

by / March 30, 2018
South Bend Chief Innovation Officer Santiago Garces speaks at the Summit on Data-Smart Government at Harvard University.

In applying for the 2018 Bloomberg Mayors Challenge — a philanthropic contest that encourages cities to come up with innovative solutions to shared problems — South Bend, Ind., took a new approach to its workforce development efforts.

Typically, South Bend had tackled that issue by emphasizing skills development, said Santiago Garces, South Bend CIO, but for the Mayors Challenge the city instead re-oriented its efforts to research causes for job loss. What officials found was that roughly 40 percent of firings in the area were related to not showing up for work or to showing up for work late. In some instances, employers at restaurants or other businesses found themselves driving to employees' houses to pick them up.

“What we realized was that the biggest obstacle for employment wasn’t skills,” Garces said. “It was transportation.”

In lieu of this research, South Bend began working on a proposal for ways the city could use technology, including ride-sharing programs, to facilitate easier transportation to and from work for employees, thereby helping residents keep their jobs and employers save money by not having to address constant turnover in the workforce. The early stages of the project were successful, and South Bend was selected as one of 35 champion cities in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, which had an initial pool of 320 applicant jurisdictions.  

The city, like the vast majority of the country, has seen an increase in the number of residents who work part-time jobs or participate in the gig economy by driving for on-demand ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. While the city will use the Mayors Challenge research phase to explore logistical feasibility, Garces said that part of the thinking now is that it would be great to pair these gig economy drivers with part-time workers who need rides to work. This could potentially be facilitated through some kind of subsidized ride program paid for by the employers who would be saving money on costs related to turnover.

Garces also said that one of the most exciting parts of participating in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge is that it has a framework that pushes technologists to prototype quickly and to rapidly debunk assumptions about their ideas. This sort of agile development often creates problems for government, a sector that generally lacks the time and resources to conduct studies about the feasibility of potential programs. South Bend expects to use tools such as user-centered design and research and prototyping this summer to quickly identify whether its idea is worthwhile.

“We know some of the things we assume won’t happen,” Garces said.

South Bend, of course, is just one of many cities across the country that struggles with these problems and is working to adapt. This makes its project such an ideal candidate for the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, a central concern of which is finding solutions to shared problems and that can and will later be scaled to other jurisdictions.

This article is the fourth in a series looking at the innovative ideas of 35 cities, including South Bend, that are currently conducting testing with support from Bloomberg. The ultimate goal for all of these projects is to create a solution that can be scaled by other cities that face similar challenges. With that in mind, these pilots have the potential to have a major impact on the gov tech market. In October, four of these cities will receive an additional $1 million in support, while one grand prize winner will get $5 million to support its idea.

Cary, N.C.

Cary, N.C., is one of a handful of cities in the Mayors Challenge with a project that seeks to address the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic.

North Carolina as a state has seen an 800 percent increase in lethal overdoses from opioids over the past decade, and officials say that lack of timely public health data is hurting efforts to stem this. The Cary project plans to generate better data related to opioid consumption by measuring concentrations of opioid metabolites in sewage. Noting in a press release that the value of this has to do with how counting overdoses relies on damage control, while wastewater monitoring would give officials a near real-time set of info to work with.

Cary’s project calls for contracting an outside company to do the testing and provide data analytics. The resultant information could then be shared with public health officials and educators in the service of developing and deploying programs to address residents who are at risk.

“Just as most places in our nation, this is a growing problem in Cary,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said in the press release. “Last year we saw a 40 percent increase in fatal overdoses and a 135 percent increase in non-fatal overdoses, resulting in a 70 percent overall increase in overdoses. Today, all of our patrol officers carry Narcan, which has prevented overdose death of our Cary friends and family members, but still, more can be done. This project will hopefully help us to do more.”

Chelsea, Mass.

The entry from Chelsea, Mass., in the innovation competition seeks to address a traditional problem: crime.

Chelsea reports that its violent crime rate is the third highest in the state, and that it directly affects the city’s roughly 6,000 residents, driven by gangs and drug-related crimes. The idea the city is working with involves scaling the proven hub crime prevention strategy so that a team of community members and government employees could meet each week to identify the residents and families facing crime-related problems, thereby creating a custom plan to help them.

Basically, Chelsea already has an existing crime hub strategy, but what this project calls for is scaling it up to proactively help people in the community dealing with crime by connecting them with city services. In a press release, Chelsea’s leadership noted that in the coming months the crime hub leaders will develop a pilot and “build data capacity to learn, adapt and direct limited resources toward crime prevention.”

This overall model is based on a Canadian hub model, one that can be readily transferred to other communities. The broader aim for this work is to help governmental efforts to address crime move from a system of silos to one that fosters more efficient, collaborative efforts.

Huntington, W.V.

Huntington, W.V., is another city with a project looking to address the opioid crisis, except their work is taking a bit of a different tact.

The project in Huntington is focused on the mental health of the first responders who must deal with the psychological impact of helping those afflicted by opioids. Huntington is another community that has been hit especially hard by this problem, with the city reporting that its first responders face as much as 10 times the national average of opioid overdoses. This has resulted in feelings of depleted empathy, as well as in higher turnover and less capacity to deliver high-quality care.

Cathy Burns, Huntington’s city manager, said this would be a new approach for the city.

“There are not a lot of resources that have been focused on our first responders and on helping them identify a better model for self care,” Burns said. “So, that’s really what our focus here is.”

A year ago, Huntington embedded a mental health professional in its police department, and after an adjustment period, officials noticed that the employees of the department not only became comfortable talking about their work but began to vent how it felt to watch the same individual overdose on opioids multiple times, as well as to do other repetitive and emotionally difficult tasks. First responders — a group that includes firefighters and police officers — have a long history of being fraternal, but they are not always so quick to embrace outsiders.

The project for the Mayors Challenge seeks to explore what it would take to embed more mental health-care professionals with first responders in other jurisdictions across the country.

Washington, D.C.

The Washington, D.C., entry for the Mayors Challenge seeks to improve the city’s responsiveness through creating a team to support city agencies that do surveys and integrate their findings into the decision-making process.

The goal, according to a press release, would be to ensure that every agency in the city is eventually conducting “smart, sophisticated surveys that regularly integrate resident feedback into key decision-making processes.”

“Our idea combines the inclusiveness of Yelp, the immediacy of polling, and the reach and rigor of the Census to ensure that residents’ voices are regularly integrated into our decision-making processes,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser in the press release. “With this tool, we can increase civic engagement and do more to build a government that is both for the people and by the people.”

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.