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Little Rock, Ark., Takes on Open Data

Little Rock’s performance and innovation coordinator, Melissa Bridges, talked to GT about using data to improve internal efficiency and increase citizen engagement.

Melissa Bridges has had three careers with Little Rock, Ark. She worked in the mayor’s office in the late ’90s while finishing a master’s degree in public administration. Then, following a stint in the Peace Corps, she became network security manager in 2010, a role she held for six years. Most recently, the city named Bridges its performance and innovation coordinator, a new position she is excited to define. After participating in Bloomberg’s What Works Cities program, Little Rock has a new open data policy, an open data portal, and momentum toward improving internal efficiency with data while also building public-facing tools for engagement and transparency. In fact, one of Bridges’ early challenges has been to limit how much she tackles.

“All the other cities I’ve talked to doing similar work, the biggest lesson they’ve told me is ‘don’t bite off too much, because if you try to solve all the world’s problems, you’ll set yourself up for failure,’” Bridges said. “Just find one small thing to focus on and grow from there, and that’s the approach we’re taking.”

1. Where is Little Rock with its open data efforts?

We launched an open data portal, and we’ve got a new website called Citizen Connect that allows the regular layperson to look at a map and understand better without being a heavy data person. We’ve tried to layer our 311 requests with police incident information and building permits, and we’re also adding housing information, working to get our unsafe and vacant structure list up. It’s an easy way for people to see what’s going on around their house, around their kid’s school, and also for us to see areas the city needs to refocus resources on, to use data to push policy decisions.

2. How has the shift from head of network security to open data been?

My old position was heavily involved with information security and teaching end users why that’s important. Now, I’m on the other side. I think about how to release info to the public and how to bust down data silos between departments so they get a more complete vision. Our police chief has been a real champion of this work, which is kind of unique for cities. He knows he has one piece of the puzzle, but crime information without code enforcement or public works or community programs — he knows those are partners and he needs their pieces of the puzzle to say, “Hey, we’ve got a lot of commonality with problem areas, so let’s band resources together and turn those areas around.”

3. Has it been difficult to foster internal buy-in across departments?

It has been a long journey. I will not tell you all 13 departments are on board and completely understand, but another big champion we’ve had is our city manager. He led the charge and said, “Let’s see if we can have access to these resources because it’s a better way of doing business.” He wanted to have deeper, richer conversations with his department directors about putting data puzzle pieces together. A lot of it has been internal education, showing other departments, look, here’s what housing is doing with this. It’s been little successes within departments as they’ve come on board, and it’s been finding key people in departments already hungry to have the technology piece, which is the piece they were missing. They knew they had the information, they just didn’t have a platform to do something with it.

4. What are the immediate goals for open data in Little Rock?

The city manager has stated that in 2018 he wants to have a public meeting focused around quality-of-life issues, including everything from public safety to parks to community programs, like a one-stop shop for citizens of Little Rock. Instead of running to a budget meeting, a planning meeting, a quarterly crime meeting, you can come to one meeting and have all these entities there with data leading the discussion, saying, here’s what we’re seeing, what potential trends are and why we need to refocus resources based on what we’re seeing, but have that be a citizen-focused conversation around data.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.