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Syracuse Data Chief Sam Edelstein to Depart City Service

The New York city's first chief data officer is heading to the private sector. He and Chief Innovation Officer Adria Finch shared their thoughts about how the public CDO position defies neat categorization.

by / June 17, 2020

Friday will mark the end of Sam Edelstein’s four-year run as the original chief data officer for the city of Syracuse, N.Y.

Edelstein has taken a position at BlueGranite, a private company that does data-consulting work. 

The CDO said his proudest accomplishment isn’t a particular project but rather a sense that he helped influence how Syracuse views and uses data — practices he feels will continue on without him. 

“It’s really this feeling that we have much more of a data-driven government,” he said. “The administration when considering a new policy or a new initiative will ask, ‘What does the data say about this? Can we bring the data team into this?’”

Chief Innovation Officer Adria Finch said there wasn’t a culture of utilizing data when she started working for the city. She recalled when Syracuse first engaged with What Works Cities, a philanthropic organization that aims to help cities base their decisions on data and evidence. From Finch’s view, Syracuse didn’t display the appetite that What Works Cities was looking for.   

“To be quite frank, it was a just a terrible, terrible meeting,” Finch said. “There was a lot of department-head leadership involved. It was just uncomfortable.”

The attitude in Syracuse changed, however. Finch gave much of the credit to Edelstein. 

“Sam was the guiding force, leading the charge,” she said. “He created a culture shift. He changed the mindset of the leadership and the employees of the city, where eventually people were coming to us asking for help. Now we’re to a point where we have so many requests coming in for assistance … that we are at a place where we have to filter those.”

Edelstein described the CDO position as one that is still being defined. He said he believes the job’s evolution will rest with people who don’t have preconceived notions about what the work might entail. 

“When you look nationally at other municipal chief data officers, so many of us come from different backgrounds,” Edelstein observed. “Our cities demand and require different things from us. Some are heavily policy-focused. Some are focused on technical issues. It sort of spans the whole thing.” 

In a way, Edelstein functioned as the chief technology officer of Syracuse because of how he brought inexpensive technological solutions to the table, Finch said. Edelstein himself sees technology as the driver for data collection and points out that cities of the future must contemplate the issue of missing data and how it might affect decisions. 

“There’s a lot of data that doesn’t get collected,” Edelstein said. “Understanding where data doesn’t get collected and making sure you’re not ignoring it when you’re making policy is really critical.”

Finch said Edelstein’s voice was essential for keeping her team together when Syracuse underwent a mayoral transition in 2018. Finch’s team was made up of grant-funded employees, and the grant was expiring just as the new mayor came in.

“He had to convince this new administration to, A, let this work continue and, B, hopefully let us keep our jobs,” Finch said. “Sam was able to really push even farther so that the work actually expanded with the mayoral transition.”

A CDO’s ability to communicate will become even more important down the road, Finch predicted, particularly as cities continue to explore how equity can be measured. 

“You need someone who is willing to push back on people or sometimes challenge leadership and get into uncomfortable conversations,” she said. “Sometimes that’s hard to judge by a resume. It’s hard to quantify. Those things are more important in a chief data officer than ever before.”

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Jed Pressgrove Staff Writer

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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