CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Back in 2012, Chicago was the first city in the country to hire a chief data officer, so perhaps it was fitting that its current CDO, Tom Schenk, was basically everywhere on day two of the Summit on Data-Smart Government at Harvard University, an event that drew packed rooms of people interested in the work now being done by municipal chief data officers.
Schenk gave a presentation on day one of the event, detailing how his city used predictive analytics to fight food poisoning in restaurants. He also sat on the marquee panel the next morning with chief data officers from Boston, Los Angeles and Cincinnati, before giving a brief presentation about how visitors to the Windy City benefit from predictive analytics without even realizing it. Oh, and then after a lunch of Fenway Park-style burgers and bratwurst, Schenk joined three more panels that afternoon, all of which were filled with local government data officers from places that ranged from Edmonton, Canada, to New Orleans.
As should now be clear, Chicago’s CDO is no longer alone. More than 20 municipal governments in the United States now have CDOs, and more join the list each year. This event was actually hosted in part by the Civic Analytics Network (CAN), a group of CDOs from major American cities, who came together for a day and a half of closed collaborative discussions before the public-facing panels. A prevailing theme throughout the second day was that municipal chief data officers and the work they do is rapidly evolving, doing so in a way that is of increasing interest to folks outside of city halls.
“For the first time ever, technologists are now expected to talk to the public,” Schenk said. “My God, what have we done tactically to get to this point?”
So, while it’s kind of funny to imagine Schenk — a tall guy who another CDO called the “Jack Donaghy of civic data” on Twitter, comparing him to Alec Baldwin’s impeccably-besuited character on 30 Rock — giving his many presentations to empty rooms, alone, all indications are that chief data officers will become increasingly prominent appointees within city governments. The reason this all matters, of course, is that it has the potential to help cities create changes that improve quality of life for residents.
Stephen Goldsmith, the director of the Innovations in American Government program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (and GovTech columnist), said in his opening remarks that data and analytics work has potential to reform the way government is conducted for the first time since Tammany Hall nearly 100 years ago, taking it to a far more efficient place where it is driven by results.
“I really believe this is the best time to change government in the last century,” Goldsmith said. “The tools that are there are just unimaginable.”
The marquee panel of the event featured Goldsmith moderating a discussion among CDOs from Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Cincinatti describing the various ways that they’ve made data useful.
For Boston, this meant using open data to create a set of tools that residents can use to make 311 simpler or to easily find information about a property before they commit to renting it. Goldsmith pointed out how these evolved uses marked a stark improvement over three years ago, when for most governments open data meant releasing datasets so people could download them.
“We needed to present [data] in a way that’s far more accessible to people who don’t consider themselves data people,” said Andrew Therriault, Boston’s chief data officer.
Sari Ladin-Sienne, interim chief data officer for Los Angeles, went on to discuss her city’s innovative open data platform GeoHub, an ambitious map-based portal that has facilitated better communication across city departments while also spurring community engagement. Indeed, Geohub is a vast and impressive repository for city data, with information presented through many channels. Ladin-Sienne described it as a citywide “ecosystem for problem solving.”
Another interesting segment during this panel was Therriault discussing the use of librarians to help further data goals, librarians who for more than 100 years have been the municipal government’s frontline when it comes to directing citizens to information. Thoughts about fostering engagement and outreach in the community, as well as internally within government, were also prominent parts of the discussions on day two.
A round of lightning talks included Louisville, Ky., Chief Data Officer Michael Schnuerle, who discussed the value of holding internal hackathons; Washington, D.C., Chief Data Officer Barney Krucoff, who described the concepts of open data and public data as “two sides of the same coin” that should be treated as such; and Kim Hicks, a data scientist with DataSF in San Francisco, who talked about using data and analytics to bolster retention rates for a public program aimed at improving nutrition for women, infants and children.
A second round of lightning talks later in the day included presentations from CDO Eric Roche of Kansas City, Mo., who talked about the rise of government chatbots; and Jacqueline Lu, director of data analytics at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, who spoke about the value in deploying volunteers to map street trees.
The second major panel of the day was Engaging with Departments, which saw Goldsmith moderating a talk between the data leadership of New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, and San Diego. The overarching theme here was how to get the many public agencies that make up city government to cooperate with open data efforts, viewing them as a tool to help rather than a hassle that creates more work.
Oliver Wise, director of the New Orleans Office of Performance and Accountability, described creating a culture that turned departments into truffle pigs that instead of sniffing out truffles, searched for use cases for open data. To do this, he said one key was to convey what open data does in a way that is useful yet generic, so disparate departments can understand it at a basic level.
San Diego CDO Maksim Pecherskiy said that his department essentially functions as a consultancy, one that busy public servants can ignore because there’s no threat of being billed. To bridge gaps, he said it was key for technologists to invest time creating useful relationships with end-users of the products they work to build.
Joy Bonaguro, CDO of San Francisco, had a different sort of problem than her cohort, because many of the departments in her city grasp the vast potential of analytics and data, but they don’t always understand what sort of issues fit. She said she has worked to establish clear guidelines, always doing so by ending firm emails with a smiley.
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.