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Helping Government Leaders Convert Civic Data into Sound Policy

A newly formed collaboration aims to organize efforts and blur the line between academic research and applied practice in Pacific Northwest cities.

Three heavy hitters in the Pacific Northwest have formed an alliance they say will bring data front and center as a driver of social change.

The University of Washington (UW) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) will bring research muscle to the table, while Microsoft has pledged $1 million in funding for the newly formed Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative (CUAC), which aims to forge alliances between researchers, students and public stakeholders addressing urban issues in the region.

“In the Northwest we have a lot of strength in the area of data, but it hasn’t been organized under any particular unit,” said Bill Howe, associate professor in the UW Information School. “If you work at a city agency and you want to reach out to the university for help, you have to open the phone book, close your eyes and point a finger. Now we want to organize our efforts, to really blur that line between academic research and applied practice in the cities.”

The new collaboration is an outgrowth of last fall’s Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference, held in Vancouver, B.C. At that forum, regional leaders sought concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, research and other areas.

At the conference, the Boston Consulting Group unveiled a study that showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor,” but that potential could only be realized through ongoing collaboration, with research universities driving public policy.

The universities say they are uniquely positioned to help government leaders convert the emerging wave of civic data into sound policy.

“We have people who know how to take government’s questions and turn that into analyses. We have researchers in urban systems who can bring a contextual lens to the problems, to look at the ways the complex sets of theories can come together, to address an issue from multiple angles,” said Gail Murphy, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Associate Vice President Research pro tem at the University of British Columbia.

“For the municipalities, they get both capacity and expertise,” she continued. “No government can afford the range of expertise that you find at a university, and most cities also have challenges in terms of having enough hands on deck. It sounds simple: We have a data set, let’s analyze it. But that work takes significant time and effort.”

While the collaborative will likely expend its efforts in a number of policy areas, the researchers say they already have certain types of social targets in mind. “We are looking for projects with data-intensive decision-making for things that directly impact people’s lives. This is food security. This is homelessness,” Howe said. “Sensors on light posts for parking are great, but when you look at homelessness, you have 50 different nonprofits and city agencies all trying to wrestle with the problems, and there is no one place where they can find the relevant data.”

Scientists also will be looking hard at transportation, an area where data is readily available but not always put to best use.

Howe pointed to the example of the ORCA card, Seattle’s public transportation payment technology. City planners have reams of information about where and how the card is used, but if you start planning transit around that data, you can easily head down a false trail.

Many citizens still pay cash for transit, with more affluent riders more likely to use ORCA. Thus, ORCA data alone generates a skewed view of ridership. That’s the kind of thing a budget-constrained city transit agency can miss, but a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team could pick up.

“It’s not about technologists just throwing out solutions as quickly as possible. It has to be about understanding the actual needs of the citizens and being responsive to that,” Howe said.
The Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative will organize its efforts around four main programs:
  • The Cascadia Data Science for Social Good Summer Program will engage students from UW and UBC campuses, where they will work with faculty to create and incubate data-intensive research projects.
  • Cascadia Data Science for Social Good Scholar Symposium will bring together students from both schools to looks at ways to use technology to advance the social needs.
  • Sustained research partnerships will help to establish the region as a center of expertise in urban analytics, with the schools providing technical expertise, driving stakeholder engagement and seeking seed funding.
  • To drive responsible data management systems and services, the cooperative will develop new software, systems and services to facilitate data management and analysis, and to ensure best practices in accountability and transparency.
Researchers likely will face some challenges as they attempt for forge a regional, data-driven approach to social change.

“The hardest part is in creating long-term, sustainable partnerships with the municipal partners,” Murphy said, adding that civic planners are excited about data today, but this is still uncharted territory and no one knows for sure whether or for how long the current enthusiasm will last.

“We don’t know yet how many of these data sets will be continually collected and updated over time,” Murphy said. “The governments have done a great job so far of collecting and providing data, but we are still in early days of how that is done, and we don’t know how easy or hard it will be to bring these data sets together. Both sides are very willing to get things to work, but it is all still very new.”

On the plus side, if the partners are successful in bringing all players to the table, they may be able to generate research at a new and deeper level. Howe said he is especially excited at the prospect of being about to engage in comparative analytics — looking at data on similar social policy across multiple municipalities.

“This is notoriously difficult because the political will and the finding and the stakeholders — all tend to be focused on their own cities and their own needs,” he said. “By having this collaboration, we can make that an explicit part of the goal, to try something out in one city and try it out another and compare the results. That would give us something really new.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.
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