This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 Communiqué of Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
By now, most are familiar with the trope expounding on the transformative power of data in our society today. We see its manifestation in nearly every part of our lives, from how we shop for goods to the route we take on the commute to work or school. For cities, the impact of data has the potential to be no less transformational, and city halls around the country are grappling with how best to integrate this seemingly endless array of information into their decision-making processes. Increasingly, the job of making sense of and harnessing this data to improve governance is falling to a new category of city hall staffer: the chief data officer (CDO).
With the generous support of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Ash Center is working to build a national peer network of CDOs, called the Civic Analytics Network (CAN), from urban areas across the country. CAN members collaborate on projects that advance new uses of data visualization, predictive analytics, and holistic data stewardship to understand the root causes and develop solutions to important urban problems related to economic opportunity, equity, and poverty reduction. The program also serves to complement much of the work that the Center’s Data-Smart City Solutions project has done to catalyze adoption of data projects on the local government level by highlighting best practices, innovators, and promising case studies.
“CDOs are at the frontier of how cities are using data to improve operational efficiency and strengthen the delivery of services to residents,” said Stephen Goldsmith, Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Ash Center. “Though the use of data, be it through predicative analytics or data visualization tools, is increasingly integral to how cities deliver services, the role of the chief data officer is still relatively undefined. CDOs lack a support structure of peers to allow them to share techniques, experiences, and lessons learned,” added Goldsmith. “The CAN network is an effort to fill in those gaps.”
The Ash Center has long worked to build peer networks of senior government practitioners in order to facilitate the exchange of ideas and to disseminate research. CAN is modeled on the Center’s signature network, the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), which twice annually convenes nearly four dozen mayoral chiefs of staff and advisors for briefings on policy innovation and leadership. “We wanted to build on the success of the PMI model and expand that to CDOs,” said Goldsmith.
“The CDO role is a new one, both in government and in the private sector,” said Lilian Coral, the CDO for the city of Los Angeles and a founding member of the Civic Analytics Network. “There aren’t many forums in which we can learn about how the role works and evolves,” she added.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed the city’s first chief data officer in 2011, the same year that the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) was established. Since then, the ranks of municipal CDOs have grown at a rapid pace, to nearly 25 in cities across the country.
For CDOs, the peer networking aspect of CAN has been invaluable. “Capacity building has been a key area influenced by the networking and peer exchange that I do through CAN. I have learned from my colleagues different approaches to training civil servants how to maximize data, and how to explain the value proposition of investing in data to elected officials and government leaders,” explained LA’s Coral. At CAN convenings both in Cambridge and online, network participants discuss issues as diverse as data standards, employee training, and application development.
“Given that CDOs are still in their infancies in most cities, they lack the institutional support networks to help build relationships, share lessons learned from colleagues, and engage with outside stakeholders,” said Jane Wiseman, an Innovations in American Government Fellow at the Ash Center and author of the report “Lessons from Leading CDOs: A Framework for Better Civic Analytics.” “CAN’s convenings are crucial to building those relationships.” Wiseman’s perspective was echoed by Coral, who chimed in that “having a space to learn and discuss my work with colleagues that understand the complexity and opportunity of working within government has been very formative.”
To help bolster capacity, capture learning from CDO offices, and replicate lessons learned, the Civic Analytics Network embeds researchers in a number of member cities. Five CAN Data Fellows serve as support staff of sorts, while identifying best practices and offering firsthand accounts of the innovative work of CDOs in the field.
This year, CAN Data Fellows are in data offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. Each fellow takes on a slightly different role, as each office is unique in its responsibilities. “Our work in MODA touches virtually every urban issue, including safety, physical infrastructure, economic development, social services, and quality of life,” said CAN Data Fellow Craig Campbell, who is spending his fellowship in New York. Of his time, Campbell estimates he spends roughly half of his day managing MODA’s business ownership of New York’s Open Data platform, which serves as the city’s hub for data analytics. Campbell shoehorns in a wide variety of other responsibilities including serving as liaison to the city’s office of legislative and intergovernmental affairs and the city’s press office. Campbell also coordinates public engagement and digital communication with stakeholders outside city government.
On the West Coast, CAN Data Fellow Sari Ladin works with Coral, Los Angeles’ CDO, where she helps oversee the data team’s analytics and digital strategy. Ladin explains that “I provide strategic analysis on current and upcoming analytics initiatives that leverage city data to address the most pressing challenges residents face.” Ladin also plays a critical role in publicizing the work of various data initiatives happening across Los Angeles through articles on the Ash Center’s Data-Smart City Solutions website as well as a variety of other print and digital publications focused on the intersection of government and technology.
In New York, Campbell is quick to say that working to implement the city’s Open Data platform has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his work in MODA, “Open Data in New York City is one of the more recent developments in the over 100-year-old political history of ‘open government’ advocacy and open society initiatives unique to the city of New York. Our open data policy is different from many cities because, here, open data is the law.”
For the CAN’s Data Fellows, their experiences embedded in leading data offices have provided new insight into how cities are using data to drive policymaking and led to new potential career paths, “I really enjoy melding policy, analytics, and design,” said Ladin. “The work the data fellows do could lead to a future career in civic analytics.” Campbell also intends to continue doing what he sees as important work, saying, “In the current political climate, protocols for how digital information is shared and managed, and its effect on civil society and public life, are more important than ever. It’s clear to me that this domain is in urgent need of critical thought, from inside and out.”
While cities are collecting data on population welfare, service delivery, and other indicators in ever-increasing amounts, CDOs are grappling with how the lack of data-standardization makes it difficult to develop applications and other tools to harness this flow of information. “Without a larger set of standards, it’s far more costly and time consuming for developers to build tools for cities to actually use much of this data in a meaningful capacity,” said Zach Markin, the staff manager of the CAN at the Ash Center.
A group of CAN members passionate about standardization is currently working to identify key data standards already in use by cities around the country, such as those related to 311 information and crime reporting. “Three of us, San Diego, Louisville, and Kansas City, have our data in bulk and it’s called the Open Bulk 311 Standard. And what we are trying to create now is a nationwide dataset made of 311 data so you can see all 311 stuff at once and then maybe do some animations or analysis of certain categories over certain time periods,” said Michael Schnuerle, CAN member and data officer for the city of Louisville, Kentucky.
The open standards working group hopes to make it easier in the future for CDOs around the country to not only compare and combine datasets but also to gain access to better developer tools. As Schnuerle put it, “We can help vendors adopt certain standards that we are also supporting so that they don't have to build tools multiple times for different cities and it makes their jobs easier, it keeps their cost down, it keeps the cost down for everyone else, and we get better tools.”
While new standards will not be adopted overnight, the CAN group is hoping to make steady progress. In order to speed up adoption, Schnuerle says there needs to be some sort of instigator, whether it is something like city data integration with software like Google maps or citizen action. Looking to the future, Schnuerle asserted, “I think when citizens demand [data] and show that it's wanted, then that's another way that you can get governments to release the information in the right format.”
On the Ground Application
In addition to providing a professional peer network and convening space, the Civic Analytics Network is working to update and build new analytic tools for member CDOs to deploy in their respective cities. The Center for Data Science and Public Policy (DSaPP) at the University of Chicago, a leader in applied data science for public policy and social problems, regularly consults with CDOs from CAN member cities to “define and replicate use cases and problem scopes that addressed challenges across multiple cities,” according to Lauren Haynes, a senior project manager at DSaPP.
Haynes’ team in Chicago is working with Santiago Garces, the chief innovation officer for the city of South Bend, Indiana, to predict water shutoffs for residents in this midsized industrial city in the northwest corner of the state. For Garces, water shutoffs are a symptom of more deeply rooted social and economic challenges facing South Bend residents. Predicting when and where they will occur is a priority for his office. Explaining that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg places an important emphasis on outcome-oriented results, Garces started looking at water shutoffs through the lens of “big picture issues” that indicated broader economic or social difficulties in households scattered throughout the city.
“We are concerned about residents living on the edge of the system,” said Garces, who is working with DSaPP’s Haynes to harness various sources of information including 311 calls, code violations, and late payment data to determine who might be at risk for water shutoffs. Preemptively identifying those at risk could allow the city’s social services agencies to intervene earlier, before a water shutoff is triggered. It could also save the city the expense of sending out crews to shut off water service and prevent expensive tampering with water meters.
“Many city databases rely on obscure or archaic database technology that is over a decade old. Extracting the data into something that can be analyzed in our suite of data science tools can be challenging and time consuming,” observed Haynes. Overcoming challenges like outmoded technology or lack of data standardization, however, could allow South Bend and other cities to better unlock the potential of data analytics. Summing up how his office is charged with improving government in South Bend, Garces remarked, “We’re driven in our desire to help people and produce good outcomes.”
“In a year, the program has managed to accomplish quite a lot,” said Ash’s Goldsmith. As CAN enters its second year, it hopes to accelerate its work improving on and building new tools for member cities. “Now that we’ve succeeded in establishing this network and getting real buy-in from CDOs around the country, we’re going to see significant progress working with our partner cities to translate much of our internal conversations to practical, on the ground applications,” he added.