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Using Data and Analytics to Make Pittsburgh Neighborhoods Great

Laura Meixell, the city's new analytics and strategy manager, will work to improve city neighborhoods, help redesign the city's 311 solution and more.

Philadelphia is like Pittsburgh’s big brother when it comes to open data. Mayor Bill Peduto was sworn in as Pittsburgh’s newest mayor on Jan. 6, and along with him came Laura Meixell, the city’s new analytics and strategy manager.

The mayor ran on a campaign emphasizing transparency, and he reiterated that focus in a speech after being elected. Meixell is now taking stock of just how Pittsburgh will do that, and the city is looking up to Philadelphia as it heads down that path, Meixell told Government Technology.

"We want to blow the doors of this building open to provide information," Peduto said to promote legislation proposed by Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak called the Open Data Initiative, which would provide legislative backing to the open data goals of the mayor’s organization, which Meixell will be in charge of.

The exact parameters of her position are not yet clear, she said, because so far her time has been spent taking a data inventory in the city.

The type of projects the city would like to see happen are similar to projects Philadelphia's been working on over the past few years. One great example, Meixell said, is a project like Councilmatic, Philadelphia’s open legislative data website, which was created by the city’s 2011 Code for America fellows.

In fact, Meixell was a Code for America fellow 2013, during which she worked on a community data and mapping system for Pittsburgh. Cooperating with more nonprofit organizations, neighboring communities, counties and organizations like Code for America is a big part of the strategy for open data in Pittsburgh, Meixell said.

“I really feel like there are so many smart people in this community who want to do good things and who would be able to stretch their resources further and use more evidence-based practices if they had access to more data,” she said. “So I really want government to be a partner with those people so they can further their missions.”

The city wants to make the neighborhoods as great as they can be, and using data and analytics is a natural way to do that, she said. The two main things the city is going to do around open data are to provide data to the people so the mayor’s administration can be held accountable for its actions, and it wants to use data to understand communities, and then take action on those understandings. Philadelphia’s open data movement has a been a guide in that respect, Meixell said.

The Philadelphia Open Data Race, which allowed non-profits a vehicle to submit an idea for how they would use data if they had it, is a representative example of the type of projects that Pittsburgh wants to use to improve its neighborhoods.

Meixell will also play a role in redesigning the city’s 311 solution.

“311 is a really interesting platform to think about the way citizens interact with government,” she said. “It’s also a huge technology challenge, which is why I’ve been brought in to help support some of our existing staff  who work in 311 currently.”

Currently the city is looking at the business procedures and integration across departments, but in the end, it’s the citizen experience that the city needs to focus on, she said.

The city also is supporting the development of a Code for America Brigade in Pittsburgh, so they can develop more new ideas of how to use data to improve the city. Officials held their second meeting for that project recently, and “we had about 35 folks show up from different parts of the community on a 10 degree day, so that’s really exciting,” Meixell said.

Opening up data sharing within the city’s siloed agencies is another task on her list, Meixell said. “The more we can work together to develop communities of practice around using data and analytics and evidence-based practices in the way that we run city government," she said, "the better off we’ll all be."

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.