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How Syracuse, N.Y.'s i-Team Has Unearthed Value Through Infrastructure Coordination

Understanding the potential of using data to tackle city priorities like infrastructure but lacking the internal capacity and budget to develop a robust data program, the city began looking for help from outside the public sector.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

What does a city do when faced with deteriorating infrastructure and a limited budget, but strong mayoral and public interest in building a more resilient urban landscape? For Syracuse, NY, the answer was not obvious at first. “I started off going to the federal government, asking for more money, and going to state government, asking for more money,” said Mayor Stephanie Miner. “Then I realized to make a successful argument, I had to be able to say that we ourselves through self-help had tried to address the problem. What I realized is that data made available a way to effectively look at how we’re spending our resources.”

Yet at the time, in 2013, the city lacked any significant data-driven capacity. “We had five or six GIS people total in all of our departments,” said Syracuse’s recently-appointed chief data officer (CDO) Sam Edelstein. “We had some people who knew a bit about data going back and forth between departments, but no dedicated talent that could rove across city government.”

Understanding the potential of using data to tackle city priorities like infrastructure but lacking the internal capacity and budget to develop a robust data program, the city began looking for help from outside the public sector. In 2014, the then-city planning director applied for and in 2015 ultimately received a three-year, $1.35 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to create a five-person Innovation Team (i-team): a dedicated capacity that helps leaders approach city priorities with innovation. Now working in over 20 cities across the U.S., Canada, Israel, and France, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ i-team program helps cities solve problems in new ways to deliver better results for residents—from tackling poverty and revitalizing neighborhoods to reducing violent crime and strengthening the city’s economy.

Through its i-team, Syracuse has gradually grown its innovation portfolio, pursuing partnerships and projects with an initial focus on the city’s infrastructure. Located down the hall from Mayor Miner’s office in City Hall, the i-team has a 360-degree view of city projects, serving as a central hub for coordinating initiatives to produce depth, efficiency, and better outcomes for residents. The i-team has effectively coordinated innovations on two levels, pursuing complementary partnerships to accelerate its innovation agenda and encouraging departments to collaborate and share data to facilitate cross-departmental planning.

Stacking Partnerships for Maximum Value 

In 2015, Syracuse’s i-team identified the city’s crumbling water infrastructure as a critical priority: Syracuse has historically been plagued by problems with its water system, seeing 372 water main breaks in 2015 and a record 391 in 2014. The team began its infrastructure work by exploring research in the field, learning about existing products and services, traveling to cities with effective maintenance programs, and reaching out to the local community.

Fixing a water main break in Syracuse


During this process, the i-team came across water main sensors as a potential solution to the city’s infrastructure woes. The team identified a number of companies that create sensors that detect when water mains have smaller leaks, allowing city workers to complete preventative maintenance projects in which they intervene more surgically to prevent larger breaks and save the city money. In an effort to predict and prevent major breaks, the innovation team began piloting sensors on water mains on a limited basis in 2016.

Sensing the city's water mains


While working on this project, the i-team simultaneously became an ambassador for innovation in the city, reaching out to other data-savvy organizations. To complement its work installing sensors on water mains, the i-team applied for a grant from Data Science for Social Good (DSSG)—a University of Chicago program that places aspiring data scientists in governments and nonprofits to tackle real-world problems—to develop an early warning system for water infrastructure problems. Seeing the potential to directly address core challenges, DSSG came on board, providing $125,000 in in-kind services in exchange for Syracuse’s data on water main breaks. The innovation team and DSSG fellows collaborated to develop a model that analyzes factors including age, material, weather, and soil content to predict mains that are likely to break. This model works in tandem with the sensors to create an even more accurate predictor of water main breaks, furthering the i-team’s efforts to enhance the city’s capacity for preventative maintenance. Thanks to DSSG’s work, the Water Department is now five times more likely to be able to spot a risky main, according to Adria Finch, director of Syracuse’s innovation team.

These water infrastructure efforts also helped catalyze broader data capacity improvements in the city. According to Finch, the city’s infrastructure data was originally limited and siloed within specific departments. Initially, the i-team worked to identify and build out data systems, then use them to create PowerPoint presentations to track the status of their infrastructure improvement initiatives. To put this data to work, the i-team partnered with What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies program that pairs cities with partner organizations that provide technical assistance in developing effective data practices. Syracuse received assistance from What Works partners the Sunlight Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) on open data and performance practices.

With this help as well as the efforts of innovation team member and CDO Sam Edelstein, the city has built out dashboards that provide much more dynamic and accessible displays of city data. Syracuse is parlaying these internal data sharing strategies into an open data portal and recently launched an initial version with a number of city datasets. Finch said that these organizations’ knowledge of best practices and the experience of other cities in the What Works Cities network have helped Syracuse navigate the data security and IT-related considerations that accompany opening data and ensure that the public is comfortable with the city’s initiative. “We received really good feedback from the community and, because different people have different sensitivities to open data, we worked with the Sunlight Foundation to ensure that there were no legal or privacy issues,” Edelstein said. He added that the i-team has reached out to a number of community organizations in order to understand what datasets are most important to them and publish the most useful information possible. This portal will provide a platform for residents to access city data—including the information the i-team has collected on infrastructure—and create apps, maps, and other tools.

And to ensure Syracuse uses the data collected to address city priorities, the i-team has worked with What Works Cities and GovEx to develop performance-driven approaches to public policy, which leverage data to measure success and inform improvements. These partners have helped Syracuse develop and monitor targets and metrics to track infrastructure and other city projects. As a result, the city has been able to not only collect and manage troves of data, but also to select the best metrics from that data to monitor the success of city programs.

Sharing Data to Plan Projects 

Syracuse’s innovation team has served as a hub to plan and integrate projects within its various partnerships in order to make the most of limited funding. In addition to working to improve the city’s water system, Syracuse’s innovation team has focused on the city’s roads. The i-team piloted a street monitoring system called Street Quality Identification Device (SQUID), partnering with tech nonprofit ARGO Labs to gather data on 388 miles of city streets. The device is built with a $35 computer mounted to a city vehicle that uses an accelerometer and camera to detect imperfections in the city’s roads and direct road repairs more efficiently. SQUID has greatly improved the precision of the city’s road mapping efforts, which previously relied on “a Department of Public Works employee who drove half of the city streets a year and visually rated each block on a scale of 1 – 10,” according to Finch. By putting the device on one city vehicle, ARGO was able to accurately map almost the entire city in a few weeks.

By facilitating cross-departmental communication and data-sharing, Syracuse’s innovation team has integrated this initiative with its water main project. According to Finch, the city has built a data warehouse with data from many city departments, providing a centralized resource for standardized cross-city data. Edelstein and the i-team have then transformed this data into maps of risk scores and ratings for roads, water mains, and sewers, information that will ultimately become available on the city’s open data portal.

Following the i-team’s recommendation, the city identified a person to take all this data and use it to manage infrastructure projects. According to Finch, “we’ve actually had to create a new position to coordinate all this—an infrastructure coordinator who collects and accesses departmental data to select and manage each year’s infrastructure improvement projects.” By analyzing these maps in the data warehouse, the infrastructure coordinator, Department of Water, and Department of Public Works (DPW) are aware of the status of each other’s infrastructure work and can avoid inefficient, independent interventions in favor of dig-once infrastructure initiatives, “where the city will complete multiple infrastructure improvement projects each time it digs into a road,” said Finch. For example, if SQUID picks up poor road conditions in a certain area, the Department of Public Works may consult the ratings of water mains beneath that road before intervening. If water main maintenance is needed, the city can go in and fix the main before repaving the road. That way, “DPW does not repave a road, only to then have a water main break underneath it, forcing us to reopen the freshly-paved street,” Finch explained. With only three dig-once projects in 2016, the city saved nearly $450,000, representing 25 percent of its infrastructure repair project costs.

These multi-purpose interventions fit within the mayor’s goal of using data to create a more cost-effective city government. “We are using data to be efficient about how we spend our money and to make sure that we are spending it in the places that we're going to get the biggest return on investment,” said Mayor Miner.

Sustaining Innovation

In its final year of the grant, Syracuse’s i-team has taken on a new project: improving economic opportunity. According to Edelstein, the city has drawn upon lessons from its infrastructure work in order to cultivate buy-in from stakeholders during this next stage. “It’s about pushing for where we think the city should go,” said Edelstein. “but also working with departments to make sure that ultimately once we’ve handed initiatives off to departments, leaders can continue to build upon their momentum.”

Edelstein hopes that the team’s successes thus far will justify a place for permanent data-driven capacity down the road. “Our hope is that we’re doing good enough work that it makes sense for departments to keep doing it,” said Edelstein. The innovation team has tried to show departments that data and technology can make their work simpler and more efficient. “We’re trying to make city employees’ lives a little bit easier,” said Edelstein. For example, the i-team facilitated the installation of sensors on the hoses that DPW trucks use to fill potholes. Now, every time a crew fills a pothole, the sensor activates, logging and mapping a data point and sparing DPW workers the trouble of manually entering data.

Edelstein and the i-team have also reached out directly to city departments to encourage buy-in and promote data literacy. “After the i-team formally launched its projects, we convened stock take meetings with specific department heads to discuss our initiatives and get a sense of how they are doing,” Edelstein explained. “We also have a data users group that meets monthly and includes anyone in the city who’s interested in working with data. We talk about specific initiatives and generally how to use analytics more effectively and different departments showcase their projects.” In doing so, the i-team shows off the potential of data-driven initiatives and helps interested departments through the process of implementing these projects.

In the future, Syracuse’s CDO envisions a new model of data-driven governance that relies on building capacity within city departments. “If we could train people in departments to do analytics projects, that could get us really far,” said Edelstein. However, there must remain some dedicated innovation capacity within the city that can do the training and “make sure departments are asking the right questions.” The i-team is working to attract new sources of funding to continue its efforts after the grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies is complete at the end of 2017.

Mayors and other city leaders around the world are turning to outside assistance to increase their ability to resolve their cities’ most pressing problems and make meaningful changes. The work of the Syracuse i-team offers valuable lessons for other cities about how to build innovation capacity, collaborate across departments, and leverage data to create lasting results for residents. By offering a different set of tools and techniques to innovate more effectively, the Syracuse i-team has helped the city dramatically improve its infrastructure and achieve substantial savings for taxpayers.