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Why Government Analytics is Still a Work in Progress

Author Anthony Townsend explains that most local governments don't use sophisticated analytics -- but there is a lot of near-term promise.

by / March 9, 2014
Anthony Townsend, a senior research scientist at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and author of the book Smart Cities. Jonathan Barkat/Courtesy W.W. Norton

In the media’s effort to chronicle the cutting edge, it can often, and unintentionally, create false perceptions about current happenings. Government analytics falls into this bucket of overwritten anomalies and underemphasized realities.

This, at least, is an opinion from Anthony Townsend, a senior research scientist at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and author of Smart Cities, a book exploring technology’s impact in city governance and planning. More of his ideas can be found in our April issue of Government Technology magazine, but read on for a few of his thoughts on the subject.

“In many cases it’s sort of been overblown,” Townsend said of analytics, which is the practice of using big data for predictive or statistical decision making. “I think most local governments aren’t using very sophisticated analytics to do their work now. But there is a lot of near-term promise.”

There are two deceptive myths in government analytics, Townsend says; the first is the grand assumption that everyone is doing it, and the second is that the data analyzed is shared collaboratively across departments, municipalities and jurisdictions.

“It makes it very different from, say, a business where leadership can quite often, and very easily, compel divisions within a company to share data,” he said.

Fears of added accountability, odd-shaped file formats, a lack of cash, training obstacles and resistance to workflow changes are all factors that stymie cities from considering or expanding analytics. Despite the swath of holdups, Townsend said, a small minority of metropolitan cities such as New York, Chicago and others are making headway with their own programs.

“Most of what government agencies are doing in terms of the actual data manipulation is far behind what I think you see in the private sector," he said, "but it creates tremendous yield because there was so little going on before that."

Examples of current analytics include traffic forecasting, energy and utility management, weather prediction, and data management. However, he said that because data analysis can extend to nearly every sector, industry and task, its uses are almost limitless. On the frontier of exploration, these efforts are as hi-tech as satellite visuals that analyze heat signatures in buildings and sensors that detect narcotics in sewage to track community health.

“It’s not like there’s any single magical sensing network thats going to transform a single given city,” he explained.

Vendors that have established themselves on the ground floor of the movement are eager to realize the potential even if the fruit is far from ripe. With analytics in its swaddling cloths, Townsend said that offerings such as IBM’s complete suite of smart city solutions are a “tough sell.” He doesn't expect a mad rush from governments to buy pricey systems carte blanche -- at least not yet.

“I think the market just isn’t ready for it yet,” Townsend said. “But as cities gain some experience, build up some success stories and then start to share them with each other, I think there will be a bigger market for those [IBM and other big vendor solutions] in the future.

Looking toward that future, governments will be nudged to use analytics in different ways. This push, he anticipated, will come in different ways for developed nations opposed to developing nations. In the U.S. and other technologically advanced countries, analytics will be driven by a need to keep pace with a rapidly changing and technologically advanced private sector. It will also be propelled by the public, which has he said has become accustomed to quick and user-friendly services.

“Citizens are expecting the same level of responsiveness and innovation from government that they’ve seen in the marketplace,” he said.

In the developing world, analytics are typically creative and less expensive options to costly large-scale challenges.

“It’s where you have cities wildly growing — as in the case of India, China and Africa — to a point where they’re really stressing the infrastructure and the systems of governance, and also in a setting where the governments have very little resources available," he said. "This is where the creative leveraging of private-sector data techniques really comes in handy.”

In developing cities, where no accurate population measurement system exists, Townsend said mobile phone records are sometimes used to understand how many people there are and where they’re migrating. In cases where there’s no official bus system, GPS mobile tracing can be harnessed with a city's private transportation providers.

“These are just fundamental pieces of information you need to govern the city effectively,” he said.

From a behind-the-scenes perspective, individuals making an impact with analytics come in two camps. The first is leadership; Townsend said these folks are critical in cutting through all the red tape and carving out a path for projects. Government innovators are the second group; these are people who come with titles such as chief innovation officer, chief data officer and CIOs who are forward thinkers.

“They’ll need to be persuasive advocates for these solutions," Townsend said. "A lot of people inside government say ‘Everything is working fine now, so why do I need to adopt this stuff that is potentially expensive and scary?’ and these people will have an ability to put them at ease."

For more on Townsend’s thoughts, be sure to catch the April issue of Government Technology magazine, which features analytics as one of three trends defining the future of government.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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