Government data experts come to Harvard University for training and workshop sessions about how to best leverage data in order to transform city services in a wide range of areas, including public safety, mobility, inspections and more.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – With a day one focus on data use cases and successful practices, the Civic Analytics Network’s Summit on Data-Smart Government began Tuesday at Harvard University, and it included a dozen sessions largely focused on individual examples of how government is using data to improve the lives of citizens.
The speakers at these sessions included chief data officers from some of the largest cities in the country, as well as academics and others who are involved with municipal data science efforts. Many of them used hyper-specific descriptions of their work — examples include Chicago deploying predictive analytics to reorder food inspections to find violaters faster, or Los Angeles' creation of GeoHub, a citywide resource for data management and visualization — to convey complex best practices and innovations through concrete examples of how they’ve used data to improve quality of life.
The event started with a half-day of panels. This marks the inaugural year for this summit, which is hosted by the Civic Analytics Network.* The network’s director, Stephen Goldsmith, is scheduled to speak tomorrow, on the second and final day of the event.
Michael Schnuerle, chief data officer of Louisville, Ky., says his city's data-sharing partnership with the traffic navigation platform Waze has been successful enough that he thinks other governments should jump on board as well.
The partnership is a relatively simple one: Louisville gives Waze access to the data it keeps about road closures and conditions, and in return the company gives the city access to traffic patterns it gleans from the 50,000 Louisville residents who use Waze every day. The information includes where those users drive, when and how fast. Louisville has gleaned many benefits from the data, including using it in place of costly traffic studies, generating real-time alerts and conducting better hot spot analysis. They’ve even used it to identify faulty traffic sensors.
Many municipalities don't have access to this data, although Schnuerle noted that access to it is common at the state level, citing California, Florida, Kentucky, Utah, Georgia and Massachusetts as examples of governments that are putting Waze data to good use. It is also commonly used in international cities like Barcelona, Spain and Tel Aviv, Israel.
The data also came in handy during one of the biggest Louisville events of the year: the Kentucky Derby. Schnuerle said one highlight was a fireworks show that attracts people from all over the region, people who afterward want to immediately get in their cars and drive home. Public servants are using Waze data to determine the best ways to route that traffic in future years to alleviate congestion.
There are also public safety applications. Police use it to identify potential areas with high incidences of speeding. Waze data is, on average, able to alert emergency responders to a crash about four minutes before 911 does.
Louisville, which was recently named a winner of Amazon Web Service’s City on a Cloud Innovative Challenge, is using funding from the competition to collaborate with civic tech volunteers and others to created automated AWS uses for the data as well. It’s in this capacity that Schnuerle sees the potential for collaboration with other jurisdictions, too. Louisville recently held an internal hackathon to develop uses for the info, but Schnuerle said technologists working on development in other jurisdictions would be a great resource.
“If we pool our resources, that way it will work for everyone much faster than if we did it all ourselves,” he said.
The data exchange, which is called the Waze Connected Citizens Program, is free for interested jurisdictions.
Tom Schenk Jr., Chicago’s chief data officer, and Sean Thornton, a program adviser for the Civic Analytics Network that operates from Chicago, spoke about the importance of prioritizing use cases for data.
Familiarizing other departments like streets and sanitation or public safety with the potential uses of open data is an obstacle many municipalities grapple with, and a portion of Schenk and Thornton’s presentation was spent talking about how they bridged gaps between technologists and other public servants in Chicago.
They started by reaching out to the executives of 10 city departments, asking them what they struggled with and where their biggest pain points were. They also asked for any strategic plans or other info about what was currently at the front of the agency’s agenda. After collecting responses, they broke the 10 agencies down into groups, and held workshops with two or three mid-level managers. This resulted in a list of more than 200 potential open data use cases. They then evaluated each one based on seven factors, the most important of which being whether there was readily available open data to support it?
For example, one potential use case was pinpointing where people tended to open up fire hydrants most often. There was not, however, any info available for when and where hydrants got opened. So that was out.
The Chicago presenters then went on to describe how they reordered the timing of food inspections to focus on restaurants by ZIP code that were most likely to have a violation, thereby reducing unnoticed violations for the 35 inspectors tasked with handling the city’s roughly 15,000 restaurants.
This project was a fit because most of the data they needed was available through past inspections and business licenses. There were, of course, other fields they were interested in, but the point is that they did not need to create any new research. They also cited collaboration with academia and their city’s thriving civic tech community as vital to the process.
The other ingredient involved was learning from missteps.
“This was our second experiment because our first experiment failed, badly, very badly,” Schenk said.
He noted that the vast majority of open data undertakings end up a success after an early misunderstanding of something fundamental, followed by a re-examination and more collaboration with the department they seek to help.
This thinking is deeply ingrained among startups and tech innovators in the private sector but is still taking hold among public agencies that are inherently lighter on resources and driven more by guaranteed results.
*The Civic Analytics Network is a partner of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.