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Driving Innovation Beyond the Big City: A Model for Small and Midsized Cities to Achieve Data Excellence

While large cities have long embraced open data, smaller cities are just beginning to implement such policies, largely in partnership with the What Works Cities initiative.

In late 2014, I had a chance to present on the main stage at the annual Code for America Summit in San Francisco. To the surprise of very few people, I was there to talk about cities and data.

Earlier that year, I had finished up my term as the first chief data officer for Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the country. My focus that day, however, was not on big cities like Philadelphia — but rather on smaller cities that had not yet started down the road of leveraging data to spur innovation and to inform better policy decisions.

In 2014, the difference between what large cities were doing with data and what small and mid-sized cities were doing was pretty stark

Large cities had embraced open data almost universally and had put in place the policy or technology infrastructure necessary to implement open data or data analytics programs. Nineteen of the top 25 most populous cities had an open data portal or a data policy in place at the time. More than 70 percent of cities with populations over 500,000 had started down the road to leveraging data to make better decisions or change the way they interacted with residents.

In contrast, relatively few smaller cities had begun that work. Of the 256 incorporated places in the U.S. with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 (based on U.S. Census data), only 39 had adopted a data policy or had implemented an open data portal at that time. 

But in the time since I first gave that talk, much has changed — largely through the work being done as part of the What Works Cities initiative, which was launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015 to work with mid-sized cities between 100,000 and 1 million in population, and is now partnering with over 75 cities across the country.

Beyond the Big City

Not long after I gave my talk at the Code for America Summit, I moved back to my hometown of Syracuse, N.Y.

Like other upstate cities, Syracuse has its share of problems and challenges, and seems to live perpetually in the shadow of its gigantic downstate neighbor — New York City — when it comes to technology and innovation. But the work that Syracuse has done over the past few years to adopt new approaches to sharing and using data are impressive, and can serve as a model not only for other upstate cities, but for mid-sized cities across the United States.

Syracuse has fostered several key strategic relationships that have accelerated its adoption of data-driven innovation. Chief among them is the city’s participation in What Works Cities, through which it has been receiving expert technical assistance in the areas of open data and performance analytics from two of the initiative’s partners, the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University and the Sunlight Foundation. This tops an impressive resume of other partnerships the city has leveraged to move the needle on data-driven innovation.

The city has also participated in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Teams (or i-teams) program, which fostered the creation of a dedicated group within municipal government to focus on persistent challenges facing the city. One of the first areas of focus for this team was the significant infrastructure issues that have saddled the city for decades. The Syracuse i-team collaborated with the University of Chicago's Data Science for Social Good project to develop a predictive analytic model to help focus limited city resources on the most urgent infrastructure problems. Not only is the city putting the fruits of this partnership to work itself, it is sharing them with other cities using the open source software platform Github.

One of the key strategies in Syracuse’s successful adoption of a data and innovation program has been its willingness to import good ideas from other cities and adapt them to its own needs. The city just finished a collaboration with Code for America, which resulted in the development of a new business registration portal that was a top priority of Mayor Stephanie Miner. Because the project leveraged work that had already been done in Long Beach, Calif., Syracuse could implement a similar solution faster and with less risk than if it had undertaken the work without following a prior example.

Earlier this year, Syracuse unveiled a new program to use data to target at-risk properties in the city for distribution of free smoke detectors from the Syracuse Fire Department. This initiative leveraged a data model originally developed for New Orleans that also was in use in numerous other cities across the country. By adapting an idea already at work in other cities, Syracuse could piggyback on the hard work that had already been done and bring results to city residents more efficiently.

While importing ideas directly from other cities can provide mid-sized cities like Syracuse with a number of advantages, not all ideas translate directly from big cities to smaller ones.

For example, New York City benefits from the ability to rally its sizable technology community around issues with a civic impact through programs like NYC Big Apps. Other big cities have also used events like this to marshall their private and nonprofit technology communities around issues with citywide impact. But for other cities with smaller, less centralized technology communities, sponsoring a stand-alone civic technology event can be a daunting challenge.

Syracuse’s approach of adapting this big-city idea to work on a smaller stage is a great example for other cities to follow. Instead of hosting its own city-sponsored civic tech events, the city has opted instead to tap into an existing network of technologists in the Central New York region. For the past few years, the city had been quietly interested in a biannual event called Hack Upstate, held in Downtown Syracuse in the spring and fall of each year. The event consistently attracts a large number of software developers and technologists from across Upstate New York.

In late 2016, the city partnered with Hack Upstate to unveil a new challenge aimed at analyzing data on road conditions in Syracuse. Participants in Hack Upstate could compete for an additional award as part of the Syracuse Road Data Challenge, and many participants opted to use the road data that the city made available to participants to develop new solutions.

Looking at the work that a city like Syracuse has done over the past few years provides some important lessons for how small and mid-sized cities (and even larger cities) can more fully embrace data as a strategic asset and foster innovation.

Leverage a Network

While large cities may have some advantages over smaller cities in their ability to drive innovation, one disadvantage they face is that their network of peer cities is relatively small. There are only so many cities the size of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami — only 10 cities in the U.S have populations over 1 million. In contrast, there are about 250 cities in the U.S. with populations between 100,000 and 500,000.

Programs like What Works Cities provide small and mid-sized cities with a valuable opportunity to connect and collaborate with their peers, including an upcoming second annual Summit in New York City in which hundreds of mayors, city leaders and frontline practitioners will gather to learn from experts and exchange ideas. And a new certification program being rolled out by What Works Cities will provide an opportunity for even more cities to participate in the initiative and join its growing network; any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or more will be welcome to apply. 

As cities like Syracuse have demonstrated, being able to leverage ideas from peers is a key component of driving innovation and adopting data-driven strategies.

Ruthless Adaptation of Ideas

The real power of open source software (the idea that the code that makes up software solutions should be freely available to all) and open data is that it enables one to build on the work of others — to adapt someone else’s work to solve your own problem. The principles behind open source and open data allow smaller cities to borrow ideas from other places and to punch above their weight on innovation.

Cities like Syracuse are great at ruthlessly adapting ideas that are at work in other places to solve their own local problems and improve the ways they provide services to residents. But knowing where to look to find good ideas can often be a challenge; smaller cities need to know which cities are leading the way in using data to allocate scarce resources more efficiently or inform new policy choices.

What Works Cities promises to address this challenge through its new certification program, which establishes a comprehensive standard for evaluating the data and evidence work being done in cities. This new standard will help to identify and nationally recognize the work of cities that are excelling in how they use data to transform what they do and allow other cities to emulate their efforts by borrowing their best ideas.

This is the way that small and mid-sized cities will drive innovation and the adoption of data-driven governance in the years ahead. 

mark headd, mark head, philly mark headd
Mark Headd is the former chief data officer for the city of Philadelphia, serving as one of the first municipal chief data officers in the United States, and was also director of Government Relations at Code for America. He is an adviser to the What Works Cities initiative.
He has over 15 years experience working for federal, state and local governments. Self-taught in programming, he holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and is a former adjunct instructor at the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration, where he taught a course in electronic government.

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