The CincyInsights Data Program Continues to Raise the Bar

Cincinnati's prolific operation has matured into one of the country’s leading municipal data programs, despite limited resources and a small team. Data director Leigh Tami reflects on its evolution and discusses the future of the work.

by / December 12, 2018
David Kidd/Government Technology

Cincinnati’s prolific data operation, CincyInsights, recently turned two years old. 

The anniversary created occasion to take stock of all the program has achieved, where it’s headed, and the lessons leadership has learned along the way. Government Technology recently spoke with Leigh Tami, the city's chief performance officer and director of data analytics, about the program. In her capacity, Tami is responsible for overseeing CincyInsights, and like a proud but honest parent, she was able to provide an assessment of progress without sugarcoating the hard work it took to get the program where it is.

When Tami took over in July 2016, CincyInsights proper was still a few months away from being launched. What the city had was a humble beginning, but a beginning nonetheless. Data sets were being released to the public and infrastructure was taking shape. Tami points now to the creation of live public dashboards — and a subsequent overhaul to make them more user-friendly — as one of the keys.

“The dashboards communicated the point, but they weren’t necessarily created with graphic design in mind,” Tami said. “It was our first draft. We put something out there, and they were automatically updating, and we were able to move it forward.”

That solid foundation, one that took into account the end user and what they experienced, has been vital to the program’s growth. It set the tone of a lot of the work moving forward, inspiring Cincinnati’s data operation to continue to change with the times. 

“We really didn’t want to end up like AOL, not changing our interface ever or doing a redesign,” Tami said. “We’ve tried to incorporate feedback. You have to keep improving it, because technology changes and you learn people didn’t want to know something. You have to not take any of that personally and just keep improving.”

Cincinnati now has 130 unique automated data sets that refresh themselves in real time, spread across 76 topics. CincyInsights is also creating visualizations for its data at a pretty impressive rate, mapping everything from heroin overdose responses to metered parking rates

Through this work, CincyInsights and the city have come to be recognized as a municipal leader in the space. During a recent conversation about deciding to add a CIO to city management structure, Bend, Ore., City Manager Eric King also recently pointed to Cincinnati as an example of a local government his operation looks to as a benchmark for success. The city recently challenged itself to publish all the data sets listed on the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Census, causing nearby public data officials in Louisville, Ky., to tweet with envy.

Administered by the government transparency advocacy group, those data sets are a collection of sets they’ve determined are important to be open, said Greg Jordan-Detamore, the Open Cities product lead with the Sunlight Foundation.

“If you’re publishing all these, that’s a good thing,” Jordan-Detamore said. “You’re publishing a number of data sets that have high public value.”

A strong and consistent commitment to open data, Tami said, has also helped her department foster cultural change within city government, getting Cincinnati to the point where conversations are no longer about whether data is reliable, but instead focused on how officials can use data to make better decisions. 

Moving forward, Tami sees more visualizations as well as more redesigns to make the work friendlier for the average citizen. These sorts of human-centered design goals have taken hold in local governments across the country, and Cincinnati is not likely backing off anytime soon.

"You shouldn’t have to have a technical background to know what’s happening where you live or where you work,” Tami said, “or to see what crime looks like in your neighborhood.”

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.