The 34 cities participating in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge are a diverse bunch, ranging from major metropolises to modest towns, from West Coast tech hubs to cities that are just starting to integrate more advanced technologies into their daily business.
However, one thing most of the participants — if not all — agree on is that the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge has enabled them to do something rare in local government: create, research and rapidly prototype an innovative idea from scratch, without having to make a risky or significant investment. The 34 cities in this group were culled from a larger pool of more than 320 applicants, given grant funding of up to $100,000 to conduct public prototypes, and put into a six-month testing phase where they are receiving individualized coaching from experts.
Oklahoma City, for example, is working on a project designed to use better data integration to help reduce its prison population. Steve Hill, who is chief of staff for Oklahoma City’s mayor, said being a part of the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge has been an invaluable window into the process of effective innovation.
Like all the other cities, public servants from Oklahoma recently traveled to New York City for an instructional boot camp run by Bloomberg, during which they learned much about ways to ideate, revise prototype programs down to the most essential bits and test their assumptions to determine in advance whether they will work. The work went innovation, test, fail, retest, fail, and do it again until you get it right.
In government there is a tendency to stop after failure and work to disassociate from it, but what Bloomberg has shown the Mayors Challenge cities is that failure is a natural part of the innovation process.
Carlee Alm-LaBar is director of development and planning in Lafayette, La., another Mayors Challenge Champion City, and while Lafayette is working to innovate in a way that better prepares its citizens for flooding, Alm-LaBar described her jurisdiction’s experience in a way that was similar to Oklahoma City’s.
“From a government perspective, this is a really awesome challenge for us,” she said. “City employees and government employees aren’t usually pushed in these ways, and we don’t usually have the tools Bloomberg has given us.”
This article is the sixth in a series looking at the innovative ideas of 34 cities 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.
As part of Detroit’s proposal as a champion city, 400 local students from five high schools will be placed into summer jobs, where they will have their career development supported by specialists and mentors.
The name of this work is called Grow Detroit’s Young Talent Program, and in press release, Mayor Mike Duggan discussed how important it is to the city recovering from its recent and ongoing economic woes.
"Our success as a city depends on making sure all of our residents have the opportunity to participate in Detroit's recovery, and with this generous grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies for our Grow Detroit's Young Talent Program, we will continue to work towards that goal," Duggan said in the release. "I'm so pleased that Detroit is one of the winning cities of the Bloomberg Mayor's Challenge and I look forward to promoting our city and our initiatives as the competition continues."
Like many cities across the country, Durham, N.C., has undergone significant growth in its downtown area in recent years, so much growth, in fact, that there is now a significant parking problem in that area. With Durham’s population projected to nearly double by the year 2040, the problem stands to only get worse moving forward.
To that end, Durham’s Bloomberg Mayors Challenge idea is seeking to change behavior and nudge commuters to take alternate methods of transportation to work, ideally addressing a host of problems such as congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and affordability. Like many of the other jurisdictions in the contest, they are using human-centric research to gather data for this work, doing so as part of a collaboration with Duke University.
The data they are currently collecting as part of the six-month test phase includes street surveys, air quality measurements and much more. While the data will eventually determine the logistics of how Durham makes improvements, Bertha Johnson, Durham’s director of budget and management services, said they are exploring ways to incentivize employees to take extra money on their paychecks instead of parking spaces, as well as other ways in which they would be comfortable not doing a single-car commute to work.
Fort Collins, Colo.
The project in Fort Collins, Colo., seeks to develop financial tools that offer a simple and streamlined process for property owners to make energy-efficiency upgrades, with a particular focus on low and moderate-income residents.
The benefits of this are multi-faceted, with homeowners seeing increase value for their houses, as well as healthier environments in which to live and raise children. According to a press release from the city, initial studies have indicated that 46,704 low- to moderate-income residents live in inefficient housing that perpetuates health and economic disparities in Fort Collins.
Like Durham, Fort Collins is also engaged in human-centric research and also collaborating with its area’s academic community, working with a professor at Colorado State University who is an air quality scientist.
The end goal is to find ways to help residents finance energy-efficiency improvements that they would see in part on their utility bills. Many of the residents the city is seeking to help, officials say, currently live in cold and drafty environments, which cause them to miss more work and school than those who do not.
As mentioned, Lafayette is working on ways to help its populous be better prepared for the advent of flooding.
City officials say they are well aware that no idea — no matter how innovative — can fully remove the threat of floods, but their work is aimed at improving the ways that residents prepare for and respond to the advent of floods.
This means using the Bloomberg method to test and prototype their assumptions, which include that citizens care about flood drainage and watershed management; that increased information can change citizen behavior; and that a Web interface or mobile-friendly platform can provide the info citizens need that will cause them to take action and positively impact watershed.
Information that city officials hope to dissimenate includes understanding here you live and what watershed area you live in, how to install rain barrels and many other techniques to prepare for a disaster when it comes.
“When the flood's coming, you’re not going to escape the flood,” said Cydra Wingerter, chief communications officer for Lafayette, “but there are some things you can do to mitigate the damage.”
They will spend the next six weeks working to determine what the most efficient of those things are.
Oklahoma City’s project aims to use data-driven methodologies that have worked in the past to improve community health outcomes to also reduce its prison population, said Steve Hill, Mayor Mick Cornett's chief of staff.
Hill said that often when an individual enters the criminal justice system, government services tend to only view data about that person as it pertains to the interactions they’ve had with the criminal justice system. Taking a wider view of an individual — as the city has done for its efforts to help folks get healthier — would give service workers “a three-dimensional look at a human being,” Hill said. With that more robust view, outreach workers can then more effective ways to assist that person, thereby reducing the odds that they end up returning to jail.
Hill said Oklahoma City has an overly full prison population, and that the community — particularly the private businesses in the area — have been leading an ongoing effort to reduce that population. This Bloomberg project is very much in keeping with that work.
The ultimate hope is that the data integration proves so effective, that instead of jailing low-level offenders, the city can begin assigning them a case worker who will help them address the causes of their involvement with the criminal justice system in the first place.
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.