Amen Ra Mashariki leads Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Data and Analytics (MODA). Named to his current position in November 2014, he previously worked at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, as a White House fellow and most recently as chief technology officer for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. We caught up with him to talk about how the city is putting analytics and open data to use to improve operations.
MODA takes on agencies as clients around analytics projects. We put together a suite of analytics projects in partnership with the Small Business Services agency, and one of those projects is Business Atlas. If you’re a large company, you have access to a lot of market research resources. If you’re an entrepreneur, you may or may not have access to those types of resources. So we work with about nine agencies, including the state liquor license organization as well as federal organizations like the Census Bureau, to get data. Then we use analytics to create a map so that anyone can put an address in and get all sorts of information around income, the age group of the people that live in that area, what businesses are in that area. … We bring it all together to help entrepreneurs make better decisions when opening up businesses.
Our engagement with the agencies allows them to more smartly engage around the impact. When we were building the Business Atlas tool, there were short sprints in which they would put it out and then come to us and say, “Hey, we would like to focus it this way,” because they know their audience. They know the New Yorkers they are trying to reach, and so the most feedback we got was around the best way to build out the tool. And the agency is working with their audience to tailor it.
For one, I think of illegal conversions. The challenge came from FDNY wanting to better identify illegally converted buildings, because they’ve seen that where people have illegally converted buildings, there is a higher likelihood of fire. It’s not that we’re doing any magic, but we’re helping investigators think about their jobs differently. They’re still the key personnel making decisions about where to investigate. We’re just taking a large city, a large data set, and making it that much smaller and usable for investigators. They went from a 13 percent vacate rate prior to working with us to 70 percent because they’re targeting where they go to investigate.
Open data shouldn’t just be about us taking data and then releasing it. MODA is all about sharing data — getting data from one agency that can be used by another to meet their missions and goals. You can only grow the quality of data by using it, by engaging with it. When you grow the quality of open data, more people are likely to use it, not only New Yorkers but other agencies. By using it more for analytics projects, you can expand the use and impact of open data.