September 17, 2020

Imagine a world where our cities not only deliver the services that we expect from them, from weekly trash collection to running our schools to supporting local businesses, but also tailor those services to each of its citizens. Like Netflix recommending the next show you should watch based on your previous views or Amazon steering you to a product you didn’t even know you needed, local governments could connect citizens who request a service with other social programs they qualify for.

Imagine a city hall not only reacting to problems—a student dropping out of school or a building catching on fire—when they occur, but using data to identify risks and take preventive measures before they happen.

These are not pipe dreams. Municipal departments already possess an abundance of data, from utility bills to tax records to school enrollment histories, though the value of that data is often locked away in silos. City analytics, a discipline that combines operations research and data science, has the potential to unlock the big insights behind the big data and move local governments toward higher efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of services and the prevention of social ills.

When it comes to the use of advanced analytics, the public sector needs to catch up to the progress seen in the private sector over the past few decades. But strictly copying private sector practices is not the right approach. There are considerations for dealing with data collected by a public institution. With all the potential analytics hold for improving the delivery of local services, its risks must also be carefully examined by analysts, the senior leaders who oversee their work, and civil society at large. A misuse of analytics may pose cybersecurity threats, threaten privacy, or reinforce existing inequities.

-Amen Ra Mashariki and Nicolas Diaz, Authors 

-David Eaves, Series Editor