More than half of the world's population now lives in cities. This mass urbanization gives cities a more central role than they've had since the days of the city-state.
With this heightened economic and political influence comes more responsibility. Municipal governments, more so than national or regional governments, provide the infrastructure and services that impact people's everyday lives, including transportation, social services, water, electricity and education. In fact, one can argue that cities are becoming the focal point for 21st-century innovation - technological, economical and societal.
The challenge is that cities and counties are often hard-pressed to quantify even the most basic answers to municipal service performance, let alone determine what it takes to fuel growth and innovation. Cities are drowning in data, inhibiting their ability to deliver core levels of service. One in three business and public leaders frequently make critical decisions without the right information. To some degree, this is a result of having older, disconnected systems that fail to supply decision-quality information.
Thankfully gaining real insights into municipal services delivery and operational performance is achievable today. By investing in analytics technology, cities can more easily track data and influence performance in many realms - in essence, becoming more instrumented. They can link critical data together - becoming more interconnected. And they can harvest new intelligence from this incredible wealth of data to make better decisions and pioneer municipal excellence.
While there's broad consensus on the need for fundamental change, the questions become: Where do governments start? What is considered an essential service? Which areas are most critical to focus on, and which metrics should be tracked to make them better?
Naturally the answers vary from city to city. Success lies in knowing what to measure - both for today's mandate and tomorrow's vision - then understanding how to best capitalize on analytics technology to gradually achieve those goals. Once a city has clarified its goal, management can more effectively optimize the systems and processes around that vision.
Consider the following essential municipal performance benchmarks where analytics can support the evolution to a smarter city:
Public Safety - A top priority among municipal politicians and bureaucrats, the task of keeping the city safe, spans the work of many different functions, including crime prevention, criminal justice, homelessness and the integrity of the city infrastructure. Analytics can help local law enforcement agencies surface crime leads, enable a more mobilized police force and improve officer safety.
The Edmonton, Alberta, Police Service integrated all information related to incidents, offenses, arrests and calls for service, helping commanders and officers make timelier and more informed decisions about crime fighting and force deployments. Instead of merely responding to crimes and emergencies after the fact, they can analyze crime patterns and trends, better anticipating criminal activities and outcomes.
Growth - For a city to thrive, it must have an optimal combination of tourism, property values, lease rates, construction, mass transportation and use of public spaces. Analytics, specifically dashboards, can provide the real-time visibility required to ensure this healthy mix, validating that tourism promotional dollars are wisely spent; public facility utilization rates are at peak; mass transit systems are delivering an optimal flow of intra- and inter-city traffic; and a strong pipeline of new urban development projects are continuously in play.
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, the ninth-largest public transit system in the United States, relies heavily on analytics technology to track key performance indicators like route productivity, bus stop utilization and spatial data accuracy to predict system efficiency and effectiveness for its 142,000 passengers each weekday.
New Business Development - Encouraging businesses to start up or set up hinges on a city's ability to make such a venture attractive. The right combination of factors like taxes, vacancy rates, job growth, facilities and employee availability and skills lures businesses. Again, analytics plays a pivotal role by enabling municipal leaders to take the ongoing pulse of key indicators, including new business license growth, new jobs created and number of conferences hosted, and then take corrective measures if analytics statistics are trending downward or not meeting set goals.
Education - Safe and thriving schools are often seen as a root indicator of a city's health. Cities and counties could set critical performance benchmarks - like improving test scores by an average number of points per student per year, maintaining safe-school audit scores against the national average or decreasing dropout rates by a certain percentage per year - using analytics technology as both the driver and watchdog for attaining and then maintaining these objectives.
A perfect example can be found within the Mobile County, Ala., school system, which uses analytics technology to identify at-risk students and adjust academic programs in real time to deliver smarter education services that provide students with the necessary skills for success.
Regardless of a city's size, complexity or ultimate objectives, analytics gives municipal leaders the power and flexibility to set high-level strategies and establish key performance indicators that support these goals in keeping with their services mix.
Managers can base strategic performance on time-sensitive information, meaningfully combined across departments and presented holistically. Analytics helps ensure that their goals align with city-level goals, and lets them confidently tweak tactics or reassign resources when needed.
If urbanization continues at today's pace, 2050 will see 70 percent of the world's population living in cities. How city governments balance service offerings against cost, improve quality of life without onerous tax increases, make cities livable for future population growth, and compete globally for talent, investment and influence is a matter of how well they know themselves and can influence their own effectiveness.
Every city will need to do some serious thinking about what can differentiate it from the pack. The "smart" ones are gleaning intelligence from new analytics technologies to make optimal use of all interconnected information available, and exploit it to better control operations, tap limited resources and nurture innovative growth.
Through their example, other cities can follow suit and fulfill their providence as the economical, governmental, cultural and technological power plants of a more efficient, prosperous and progressive world.
Robert Dolan is public sector global solutions executive at IBM.