Nationwide Network of Urban Chief Data Officers Prompts Collaboration to Address Social Issues

Since the summer of 2015, a handful of local governments and academia have been looking at how to best share their respective data and solutions to problems like homelessness and urban blight most effectively.

by / April 13, 2016

The public sector has the unfortunate reputation of being slow to adopt new innovations and meaningful solutions. It isn’t for lack of trying, of course. It’s more tied to the tar-like pace of bureaucracy and the fact that information sharing is often absent between like-minded individuals divided by departments, organizations and geography.

Despite the quickly recognizable limitations placed on those in the greater government space, one project is looking to reduce some of these barriers and open up information sharing that could equate to some good being done on city streets across the country. 


In 2010, Colorado became the first state to appoint a chief data officer (CDO). A year later, New York City pioneered the position in local government.

Click on the pinpoints in our map to see the various chief data officers in state and local government, and in education. Blue signifies a state-level officer, green signifies a local-level officer, and yellow signifies an officer in education.

Since the summer of 2015, a handful of local governments and academia have been looking at how to best and most effectively share their respective data and solutions to problems like homelessness and urban blight. Behind the effort is the burgeoning role of the chief data officer.

We’ve seen sharing networks happen at the CIO level to great effect. But now those in charge of city data visualization tools and the data sets behind them will have a chance to meet the challenges posed by so many urban environments.

On Monday, April 11, the Civic Analytics Network (CAN) -- a nationwide network of urban chief data officers from the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation --  went from conversation to an implementable reality, thanks to a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. And on April 11 and 12, city officials from across the country gathered at Harvard University to discuss next steps.

Professor Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has been involved in the project since discussions kicked off last summer. 

“We’ve watched the emergence of a lot of good work," he said, "but we also noticed that it wasn’t replicating quickly."

While the overarching goal of the collaboration is to address social issues using available data sets, Goldsmith said the focus of the CAN group will be making sure the resources are in place to enable governments to successfully intervene in these issues in the first place.

By identifying valuable use cases, Goldsmith and others involved it the project hope to empower information sharing with other cities grappling with the same problems.

“One issue everyone is facing is how do we make city services in a way that leads to better interventions? Another issue is how do we get the community more involved using all the data… How can we encourage thoughtful questions to be asked and answered because of the quality of the data?” he said. “Then there are issues of transit, jobs, homelessness, affordable housing, the substantive issues, which we will take up a couple of. But our main purpose is to support the replication of work that is being done in one city to another city.”

Thus far, 12 local and municipal governments are involved in the project:

  • Allegheny County, Pa.;
  • Boston;
  • Chicago;
  • King County, Wash.;
  • Los Angeles;
  • New Orleans;
  • New York City;
  • Minneapolis;
  • Pittsburgh;
  • San Diego;
  • the city and county of San Francisco; and
  • Seattle.

Tom Schenk Jr., chief data officer for the city of Chicago and one of the organizers behind the CDO network movement, said once completed, the project will act as a clearinghouse for ideas and solutions, and will remove unnecessary barriers to communication.

“We’ve been around for some time and have been able to work with other cities for a number of years, so it was very natural for us to come together so we could share ideas, share solutions and work together to find things that are common between our cities,” he said. “As we work to create solutions within our own cities, try to find things that we can share among each other to help reduce the overall amount of work that we are all responsible for.”

In Chicago, Schenk said the ultimate goal is delivering the solutions and refined data to the city staff who will be able to turn the intelligence into action and improve upon services.

“We all have problems around social services and challenges that we all must meet," he said. "So how do we deliver social services better? As every one of our cities are being challenged on that front, we can come together and find areas where we have common ground and not have to reinvent the wheel."  

Once the network is in place and is better defined, Goldsmith and Schenk say they would like to see the tools deployed in an open and accessible way for those not included in the initial project.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.