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Memphis, Tenn., Earns Accolades for Its Evolving Data Work

After garnering a silver certification award from What Works Cities earlier this year, Memphis continues to develop its efforts to solicit public feedback as it builds a culture of data-driven governance.

by / May 14, 2019
Joseph Roberts, GIS analyst, and Paige Jackson, communications and training lead, demo tech projects and gather student feedback related to Memphis' priorities such as jobs, public safety, good government, youth and neighborhoods. Wendy Harris, Project Management Administrator Memphis.

After winning an accolade for its efforts to improve data-driven governance, Memphis, Tenn., is pushing its data practice even farther.

Memphis was one of four new jurisdictions granted silver certification by What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative that supports the use of data and evidence-based management within local government. Cities obtain these certifications by hitting a series of benchmarks determined by the group, which develops a set of 45 criteria related to the work, including things such as whether they use data to set goals and track progress. It was a prestigious award, given that nearly 100 cities applied and so few were chosen.

Now, Memphis is preparing to roll out the next evolution of its data-driven governance and related tech work, said Memphis CIO Mike Rodriguez during a recent phone call with Government Technology. The most tangible result of this work is that the city is preparing to launch a new version of its online open data portal in June, one that will have a much heavier focus on storytelling.

What this means is that instead of just presenting open data sets, the new version of the portal will go to greater lengths to find ways to show the citizens how to work with data, what it means and why it matters to their everyday lives, Rodriguez said.

Indeed, creating a citywide awareness of the open data work remains a major concern in Memphis. So too does soliciting public input on the work, which is an area of accomplishment specifically praised by What Works Cities in a post it wrote praising Memphis. In developing the open data policy that serves as a bedrock of the portal, Memphis worked to collect public feedback and integrate it into its decisions.

That work continued recently during an information tech fair attended by school children between the ages of 11 and 14. Technologists from the city were in attendance and on hand to speak with kids, both telling them about Memphis’ open data work and asking what they thought about it as well as about the local government in general.

Paige Jackson, communications and training lead with the city, said she collected so many ideas and thoughts from the students that she eventually had to organize them in a spreadsheet with more than 100 responses.

The prevailing sentiment among the kids, Jackson said, is that they want more afterschool programs that allow them to learn about the work being done by the city. They even suggested pop-up learning events at parks and other places. Rodriguez and Jackson are optimistic that these ideas will inform Memphis’ continuing data work in the years to come. Also, the hope is that the experience will empower the youngsters, showing them that they do have a voice and when they use it, the city listens.

In addition to all of this, technologists in Memphis are engaged in ongoing public-private collaborations, which range from a project with the University of Memphis that is helping them use lidar to map the insides of public buildings in the case of emergency events, to applying for grants related to developing autonomous vehicle use in the city. Executive buy-in from Mayor Jim Strickland has given this side of the work a boost.

Overall, Rodriguez said winning accolades like the one from What Works Cities is nice, for obvious reasons, but on a more practical level it gives the city validation that it’s on the right path for improving the quality of life of its residents.

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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.

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