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First Steps for Cities in Harnessing the Value of Untapped Data

Despite the abundance of data and analytics, cities often don't realize their possible uses.

Cities big and small operate under constrained budgets. And in an era of increasing government transparency and social media monitoring, cities and their administrators must act fiscally responsible. What's one thing cities often don't take into account when looking to maximize value? Data.

Despite the abundance of data and analytics, cities often don't realize their possible uses, according to Erica Garaffo, data analytics lead for San Jose, Calif.

“Data is an asset,” she explained while moderating a panel at the Smart Cities Week conference held May 8-10 in Santa Clara, Calif., adding that cities need to think about data in the same way they would any other resource.

“Cities collect huge amounts of data,” she told Government Technology after the event. “Often, they do not have the resources or the ability to perform big data analytics [in order to extract the maximum value]. Only now are we starting to see cities understand the value, even if they aren’t able to access it yet.”

For Los Angeles, investments into open data and cross-departmental sharing are beginning to reap benefits, said Analytics and Digital Strategy Lead Sari Ladin. “Data is bringing invisible to visible,” she explained, adding that while cities often can use anecdotal evidence for their ailments, having the data to back them up is crucial for getting momentum behind a project. “Data-driven decision-making is current governance innovation.”

Ladin explained how CleanStat, is helping cut costs for the city’s sanitation department. Using GIS software, the city was able to measure where litter was concentrated and target those areas to clean.

“We were able to drive across 7,000 miles of streets in Los Angeles and assign a cleanliness index score to each street segment,” she said, adding that the program — which compiles data from the departments of sanitation, public works, neighborhood empowerment and police — has yielded impressive results. “Since launching CleanStat almost a year ago, the city has reduced unclean streets by 82 percent and somewhat clean streets by 84 percent. During the last quarter of 2016, unclean streets made up only 1 percent of the total street segments and 87 percent of the streets were rated clean.”

The city has completed four surveys, and has the data necessary to recognize trends and patterns. By understanding where problem areas are, it saved money by creating more efficient deployments of street cleaners and sanitation workers.

But not every city can easily devote the resources necessary to derive similar results, she forewarned. For Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive order in 2013 that pushed for data to be open and available not just to the public but also across city departments — and it was a huge first step in creating the open data analytics culture.

Meanwhile, San Jose is working to install a framework that will support an open data sharing culture in city hall.

“We’re developing a plan for open data community architecture,” explained Garaffo. Although public transparency is often a selling point to elected leaders, open data can derive a significant proportion of its value across city departments. The city, she added, is “turning on the liquidity within the city, sharing data across silos. Open data for open data's sake … is not as helpful for cities as sharing across departments.”

Having widespread buy-in for Los Angeles has been a driving factor in its success. One piece of advice for cities looking to leverage their data, Ladin said, is to “make sure you have a data champion” within all city agencies. Having “data stewards from every city department,” she said, ensures there is a point person for data projects and someone who knows what data is available and who can help explain it.

And something that will always help a program is to get some early wins, said Hitachi Insight Group Chief Technology Officer Sara Gardner. “Think big, start small,” she said. "Try to map out what the ultimate vision will look like in five to 10 years, but begin by laying one brick at a time."

One of Ladin's goals is to help deliver data sets in a more intelligent way. Through Los Angeles’ data portal, she said she would like the city to take a cue from Netflix: After watching a movie or finishing a series, she explained, recommendations will pop up for what else you may be interested in.

“I’d like to have a similar system,” she said, one that notices that a user looking at building permits may want to look at zoning ordinances. So long as “we make sure our investments are forward-facing and civically oriented, we can tackle some major obstacles even on a constrained budget."

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.
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