Affectionately nicknamed “America’s Finest City,” San Diego is known most for its miles of beaches and seemingly always-sunny weather. But the coastal city is also a hub of innovation, home to a number of tech and cybersecurity companies along with prominent research institutions that have inspired city leaders to make waves in municipal analytics. The city’s data-driven achievements include an innovative, customized open data portal built in-house.
Maksim Pecherskiy, the city’s Chief Data Officer (CDO), leads these efforts. Operating under Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s vision of a city government as innovative as San Diego’s residents, Pecherskiy runs the city’s open data initiative. A programmer by trade, Pecherskiy arrived to the job in 2014, and immediately set out to launch the city’s first open data portal.
Since the goal was to get a portal up and running as quickly as possible, Pecherskiy and his team started with a ready-made portal option purchased from a vendor. But the portal was geared toward the manual upload of city data and Pecherskiy and his team wanted members of city departments to be focusing on using data to serve residents, not trying to remember to upload datasets to the portal.
So Pecherskiy’s team built its own portal, which launched this past February, with an emphasis on automating city data. The automation process the San Diego data team uses pulls data directly from the city’s various systems, transforms it, and puts it into the cloud. Leaning on JKAN open source code by Philadelphia CDO Tim Wisniewski, San Diego created a portal that integrated with its automation process.
“All of our data is fully automated. While that’s nice for delivering to the open data portal, we are now also notifying our fellow city employees when certain datasets are updated,” Pecherskiy said in an interview with Data-Smart at the spring convening of the Civic Analytics Network.
This notification aspect is still in the prototype phase, but its functions are clearly valuable. Staff that get alerts in real-time when critical data is updated will be equipped with the knowledge to solve problems before they become significant and be able to identify the hotspots for issues before public services are affected.
Pecherskiy said he and his team are working to get more internal staff on board with the notification system. He says the motivation to participate is clear based on the efficiencies gained from automation, but that there are often several factors that need to be ironed out before notifications can be set up including how often to send them, what time period to focus on, and the appropriate points of contact.
“I’m not a typical government employee” — analytics office as a “consulting shop”
Pecherskiy said he and his team of two full-time staff members have been working increasingly on internal analytics with colleagues throughout the city, proving their worth and the value of data-driven efforts as they go. He works in a larger department called Performance and Analytics, or PandA, headed up by Almis Udrys. The department’s goal of operationalizing buzzwords (like efficiency, transparency, and accountability) combines data and analytics efforts with performance management, operational excellence training and project execution, citywide surveys, and the city’s 311 system known as Get It Done.
“We engage departments, and do a lot of shadowing and exploration to figure out the right technologies and solutions for what they need. We work hard to make sure they get the best tools for their decision support that don’t cost a boatload of money,” Pecherskiy said.
The more he and his team engage departments, the more a clear organizational plan for deploying analytics projects emerges. He said they have now developed a predictable practice for working with departments to execute analytics projects.
And while the team is small, Pecherskiy believes the office will grow naturally the more they prove their worth. “Just like a consulting shop grows with demand, that’s how we want to grow our team,” Pecherskiy said.
Pecherskiy is a programmer through and through, not only because he views his municipal analytics team as a “consulting shop” but because he has no formal background in policy. In fact, his career trajectory before joining San Diego was more on par with those working up the coast in Silicon Valley.
A few years ago, he was working at a startup for local sports leagues, and while he said he learned some of his “best practices” at the job, he found himself looking for a bigger, more meaningful challenge after a trip.
“I was working at a startup and went to Israel, met some soldiers, and after a few conversations decided I should do something more meaningful in my life,” Pecherskiy said. “So I applied to Code for America, worked on an 11-month fellowship in Puerto Rico, and that’s when it hit me — I have the skillsets to really make an impact.”
Pecherskiy immediately saw a public-sector technology gap that he wanted to help close, so he began scanning mailing lists and job postings and applied to the opening for a CDO in San Diego.
“I did not think I would get a call back, I even wrote in my cover letter first thing, ‘I’m not your typical applicant’,” Pecherskiy recalled. “I thought I was probably not the type of person that would normally apply for this job, and now here I am.” His hiring process, including a now-infamous interaction with Mayor Faulconer, was even featured in a Code for America Summit talk [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BGw2Msv2Wg].
Working to advance standardized datasets through the CAN peer group
Pecherskiy sees great potential for peer collaboration in the Civic Analytics Network and has spearheaded, along with CDOs from Louisville and Kansas City, MO, a subcommittee on forming common data standards.
The group has chosen to focus efforts on standardizing 311 data to a common “bulk standard” that Pecherskiy said is both popular and well-defined; a “good start.”
“For a programmer or a data scientist running an analysis, these things matter,” Pecherskiy said. “If I wanted to build a visualization for 311 data, and then do the same for another city, I couldn’t do that without a lot of extra code. This means that every city now has to make their own…or pay someone to do it.
Pecherskiy said the data standards subcommittee has partnered with the location intelligence company Carto to start a national map with standardized data from Louisville, Kansas City, and San Diego.
The standardization of data could also save cities money as it would allow for vendors to deploy analytics products in cities without having to build from scratch each time. Pecherskiy imagined a hypothetical situation for the streets.sandiego.gov, a website that shows street conditions and repairs throughout the city. “Great tool, very useful. We built it in house, on our open data. If another city wants to pick up and use it, they’re more than welcome to…. except that their paving data is probably differently formatted than our paving data. Which means their developers will have to do extra work to stand it up, which could mean extra money, extra time, or it not happening at all. That’s the kind of friction I believe data standards can remove.”
It seems Pecherskiy has now found that meaning he was looking for after his interest in public service was piqued in Israel. He’s emerged as an innovative CDO and an advocate for what he says is a common-sense strategy of standardizing data.