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New Orleans Douses Flames With Data

In the first in a series of data-driven projects, New Orleans looks at ways to make its operations smarter and keep its citizens safer.

New Orleans will use data from its NOLAlytics initiative to strengthen fire safety and prevention efforts. The project, announced March 31, is the first official use of insights generated by the analytics initiative, which is run by the city's Office of Performance and Accountability (OPA).

Based on analysis generated by the initiative, the New Orleans Fire Department will conduct a door-to-door outreach campaign that targets households least likely to have smoke alarms and most likely to have fire deaths and injuries. This month, the city will begin distributing 7,500 smoke alarms and educating the public as part of the NOFD’s overall fire prevention campaign.

Oliver Wise, director of OPA, said the project's ultimate goal is to reduce preventable fire injuries and fatalities like those caused by a serious structure fire in November 2014. That fire caught the public’s attention by killing two adults and three children. Structure fires have caused 22 fatalities in the city between 2010 and 2014, and no smoke alarm was present in most cases. Although the number of structure fires has decreased nationally by 18 percent between 2002 and 2011, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, they still killed more than 3,000 people, injured 17,500 and caused $11.7 billion in damages in 2011.
After the November fire, the NOFD ramped up its smoke alarm program, but the chief wanted to take a more targeted approach, Wise said, and reaching more of the right people at virtually no cost to the city was a winning proposition.
“This project was done with zero marginal costs other than in-house staff time,” Wise said. “The data was completely free. We used R in the analysis, which is free open source software. So this is done at zero cost.”
New Orleans enlisted the pro-bono support of Mike Flowers, who is chief analytics officer of, a New York-based firm that analyzes public records. Flowers formerly served as CAO for New York City, running Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s analytics program.
“It’s one thing to provide one-off insights,” Flowers explained, “but what I was much more interested in was capacity building. Because New Orleans had the right leadership environment, it seemed to be well worth my time and the time of my staff to give them a hand.”
In addition to reducing fire deaths and injuries, Flowers predicts the program will yield operational advantages for the city’s fire fighters by giving them more insight into the neighborhoods where fires are most likely to occur.
The technology does not require a giant cash outlay, Flowers said. “If you want to leverage your information and act on it for the betterment of local government, what is really necessary to start is good leadership,” he said of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “I’m super proud to be part of that.”
The city’s NOLAlytics program has several other projects now in the planning stages, Wise said, including efforts to clean up urban blight, lower street flood risk and improve health care.
Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.