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The Importance of Celebrating Data Wins

Former and current gov tech leaders say talking about successful projects is key to advancing innovation work.

It may run counterintuitive to the instincts of logical and results-driven technologists — especially the numbers and data crowd — but it is becoming increasingly vital for gov tech leaders to tell stories of their successes.

What these successes, which many call data wins, look like varies from city to city. A data win could be a project in Chicago that helped food inspectors identify restaurants at risk for health violations, or the creation in New Orleans of a data-intensive predictive fire risk model. Data wins are tangible examples of data-driven governance improving life in cities.

They are popping up with increasing frequency across the country, to the point Harvard University’s Stephen Goldsmith has said that there is more potential to reform and improve government now than there has been in nearly 100 years.

In order for that improvement to happen, however, technologists must continue to celebrate data wins. One of the clearest reasons why is that spreading awareness of a win earns support for data work moving forward, support from politicians who approve such work, other public agencies that must cooperate and the community, which ultimately stands to benefit.

In recent years, more than 100 cities have participated in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program, an initiative that seeks to help mostly mid-sized cities develop data projects that improve citizens’ lives. Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for What Works Cities, said helping participants learn to better celebrate their data wins was “the lion’s share of what we do.”

“We have found over the last two and a half years that cities that can publicly talk about the work and make this public commitment do a stronger job of actually advancing their practices,” Stein said. “If you talk about data, if you use data as part of your conversation with your residents, if you are transparent about publishing data of your progress, then you invite the public in to not only see what you’re doing, but to participate in using the data as a starting point.”

Stein also said that a public endorsement of data work makes it known to the public, which makes it a priority for political leaders. There are other benefits as well, such as increasing the likelihood of getting the support of the local business community, academics, civic tech groups and other departments within city hall.

“It’s challenging for everybody, because if you haven’t been used to talking about the work, it is a bit of a challenge to figure out how to talk about the work,” Stein said.

Kristin Taylor, also a spokeswoman for What Works Cities, said the group has had many conversations with cities about the best ways for them to identify stories of data wins. Cities and their employees can be reluctant and risk averse, especially when it comes to new technologies, but a strong narrative and ongoing dialogue about what’s working and what’s not can allay some of these concerns.

It’s not just about sharing your biggest wins, Taylor said, but about regularly sharing all progress along the way. Bloomberg encourages all participating cities to give regular updates about gov tech work via social media as well as through other channels such as the mayor’s annual address. That way if something doesn’t work out, the public understands why.

“Highlight the good data, absolutely, look for the big wins and the stories,” Stein said. “Those are the cherries on top, but go out there and begin this back and forth. It radiates out in all the ways we’ve been discussing to staff and to people in the community who want to support your work.”

Oliver Wise, formerly New Orleans’ director of performance and accountability and now digital government principal with the gov tech company Socrata, can attest to the value of celebrating data wins. It was something he advocated and practiced often during his seven-year stint with the city. Although Wise had a different job title, his role was essentially that of a chief data officer, and he was one of the earliest in the country to do that sort of work for a major American city.

When Wise and his team started working on data-driven governance initiatives, it was a foreign concept within New Orleans. He recalls having to change peoples’ thinking.

“It’s a very heavy lift to change the status quo in government, and you need a lot of political capital to really shake things up in an organization,” Wise said. “You need to show, not just tell, what your value is. People will be most convinced if you really show them proof points of how data innovation work, or digital services, is really creating real value for people on the ground. The value of data and digital services can be really obvious for people working in that space, but totally un-obvious for people in an un-technical audience.”

Wise also said this means more than just preaching the value of the work to the press. It also means celebrating the mid-level managers and department heads who bought into the work within the organization, thereby creating a culture that welcomes more participants into gov tech.

David Eaves, a lecturer and research fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School, said that while celebrating data wins is important, technologists also must be aware of how and why they’re celebrating their work, emphasizing that the end goal should be entrenching the work within city government, rather than just grabbing quick headlines.

“The most important thing is do you know why you’re doing this?” Eaves said. “Do you know why you’re celebrating a win?”

This, however, likely won’t be a problem, Eaves said, provided the data projects have great value in the first place.

In other words, it’s easiest to tell a story about a data win when that win is significant. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.