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New York City, St. Petersburg, Fla., Ramp Up Data Storytelling

Better software has made the job of interpreting and analyzing city data easier. The results are both profound and personal, depending on how the technology is used.

For many cities across the country, collecting data is not a problem. Most agencies do it automatically, giving cities an ample amount of data for analysis. What is more challenging, however, is using that data to make better evidence-informed decisions. Given the complex nature of analytics, city officials have struggled to understand or draw inferences from the information collected by disparate sources within municipal governments. 

Recently, data analytics experts have begun to preach the value of data storytelling, with the result that some of the biggest companies in gov tech now offer products aimed at helping cities tell stories culled from their data. The results are starting to emerge in mid-sized jurisdictions.

St. Petersburg, Fla., for example, recently reduced instances of blight within the city through an effort that was powered in part by data storytelling. The city has long had plenty of data but has not traditionally been able to convey what it means nor how it could actionably help city management. Finding ways to do this has long been a goal of StPeteStat, the city’s open data and accountability platform.

“The city is never short on data,” said Debbie Volk, StPeteStat coordinator. “We collect everything, but one of the challenges is it wasn’t always collected in a way that was easily accessible and let decisions be made upon it.”

In order to do this, Volk and the StPeteStat team are building performance dashboards for all of the city’s departments with a product called Socrata Perspectives, which can present data in comprehensible ways. The StPeteStat dashboards use simple phrasing, clear graphs and bright colors. So far, Volk said, she and her team have completed 12, and some of them are already yielding results.

St. Petersburg’s Codes Compliance Assistance Department is perhaps the best example. One of the key goals of that department is to help reduce blight by enforcing city codes and spotting violations. With the help of StPeteStat, city technologists were able to map the areas where the most code violations were occurring. Then they showed in relatively simple ways where one of the city’s 24 code investigators was overworked and another was severely underworked, said James Corbett, director of the Codes Compliance Assistance Department. The storytelling efforts soon fostered buy-in, and districts were redrawn to make better use of resources, reconciling responsibilities and lowering instances of blight.

“One way to do more work and attack more problems is throwing more people at it.” Corbett said. “But it’s a government and we have limited resources so we have to learn to work smarter. This makes us more agile with our resources. We’re able to deploy them in manners we weren’t before because we have the data to support it.”

Another way the storytelling components in StPeteStat accomplish this is by eliminating unneeded processes and creating reports for the mayor and other officials to read in near real time.

Saf Rabah, vice president of product strategy for Socrata, which supplies the software for StPeteStat, said the value of the platform is that it gives city employees — regardless of whether they have a background in data science — the ability to present easy-to-understand reports and information sources to their elected officials, city managers and communities.

Other local governments are pursuing data storytelling projects. In New York City, for example, technologists recently turned to a widespread system of kiosks to do some data storytelling. Through a program called LinkNYC, the city has 1,700 active high-tech hot spots, where the public can view city data, as well as view stories about how residents have used the data.

The LinkNYC screens project personal testimonials about citizen use of New York's open data, ranging from reports on the city's rental market, the life span of New York's trees and how the city's vast sewer system works.

City officials described it at the time as an effort to let everyone in the city know that data was available for them to use, whether they had a technical background or not.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.