How to Cultivate Data-Driven Partnerships

By Jess Weaver • February 27, 2018

Innovation or technology teams at the city level are known to be lean, and the challenges they tackle – from gentrification to public health to mobility – are daunting. According to data innovation leaders from across the country gathered at October’s Summit on Data-Smart Government, the key to cracking these seemingly insurmountable policy challenges is effective cross-sector partnerships.

City technologists from Pittsburgh, Chicago, South Bend, and New Orleans all weighed in on the need to foster collaboration among departments. When grounded in strong relationships, shared objectives, and continuous communication, these cities have leveraged powerful partnerships across a range of sectors to make headway on some of their thorniest citywide challenges.

Tough Challenges Demand Creative Partnerships.

The plan in Chicago was to use open data to identify the restaurants most likely to be in violation of the city’s health code. The issue was staffing: Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk’s small team simply didn’t have the capacity to handle data analysis of that scale.

Though Chicago had partnered over the years with academic institutions, this project demanded new partnerships – this time with the corporate sector. The City worked with Civic Consulting Alliance, a nonprofit that connects government initiatives with private partners, which facilitated an introduction to insurance giant AllState. Through AllState’s corporate philanthropy program, the city was able to leverage the time and expertise of volunteers tasked with the large-scale data analysis that internal departments simply did not have the capacity to manage.

In addition to outsourcing data analysis, Schenk shared how a creative partnership resolved a critical issue of data access. Working with the University of Chicago, the city was able to predict children under the age of one (a population for which the city has no data access) most likely to be exposed to lead. Even though they could not access the data themselves, the city’s team built an API that offered a free service that hospitals could integrate into their data systems. Unlike the inspection initiative, the city built the technology based on previous lead exposure, environmental and demographic data, but a unique partnership enabled that technology to be effectively deployed, overcoming restrictions to key data. Though distinct, both partnerships were facilitated by a combination of creative thinking and messaging that spoke to stakeholders in their language and focused on their interests, be that student experience, employee engagement, or economic development.

Shared Concerns Drive Effective Partnerships.

In South Bend, IN, the city’s partnership with Notre Dame emerged from a shared concern: economic vitality. While the city wanted to improve affordability and attract companies and developers, the university was also focused on attracting new business – in this case, students.

Marrying business incentives and community development objectives has catalyzed South Bend’s city team to build both formal and informal partnerships that range from supporting a talent ecosystem connecting students with employers to organizing volunteers to identify blighted areas across the city. With a small team, Chief Data Officer Santiago Garces is able to leverage shared concerns to drive partnership-building strategies with universities, nonprofits, and local businesses – a feat in both messaging and awareness-building. His team uses a wide range of tools for soliciting, scoping, and executing cross-sector partnerships, but have found success in positioning themselves as change agents within the community around key issues.

Aligning on Scope Ensures Feasible Partnerships.

When it comes to cross-sector partnerships, the devil is indeed in the details. Laura Meixell, Assistant Director of Digital Services for the City of Pittsburgh, advocates for a wide variety of partnerships characterized by distinct levels of engagement and distinctly scoped initiatives. According to Meixell, a versatile group of projects is key for building a balanced portfolio that streamlines her team’s process around collaboration.

Meixell homed in on two essential factors in scoping partnerships that successfully leverage stakeholders’ assets and minimize the risks of poor coordination. First, the city must understand the time it takes to actually establish different partnerships and second, must understand the timelines around which different types of organizations operate. By digging into these factors, the city gains a better idea of the constraints around project budgeting and execution and can coordinate the activities of various partners. If not acknowledged, the gap between an academic semester, a fiscal year, or a funding cycle can derail partnerships broached with the best of intentions.

In Meixell’s experience, partnerships oriented around special projects have the capacity to bring together divergent stakeholders, such as departments of transportation and professors working on smart streetlights in Pittsburgh’s case. However, these projects require a high level of coordination. The “City as Lab” model, in contrast, hinges on university researchers’ interest in a particular urban issue, but may stall due to conflicting timelines and low capacity of government teams to dedicate time and resources. Regardless of the ultimate shape of the partnership, thoughtful consideration of the logistical, legal, and temporal challenges of each project is critical to sustaining both momentum and relationships.

To mitigate potential discrepancies and also to streamline the onboarding process for partners, Meixell’s team created a framework for understanding and developing their partnerships, each accompanied by different logistical efficiencies and challenges. By effectively understanding the anticipated timelines to develop different types of partnerships, the team can build a balanced portfolio based on mutual understanding. Institution-building partnerships, such as a data-sharing program with the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, offer the promise of strong relationships and the ability to generate long-sustaining communities of practice among like-minded technologists or urban researchers. The process of consensus-building and the complexity of negotiating formal scopes (particularly around the sharing of data), however, is highly time-consuming, legally complex, and occasionally politically messy.

“Spillover” Catalyzes Successful Projects.

The image of a truffle pig might not be top of mind when envisioning effective cross-sector partnerships. But New Orleans’ former Director of Accountability and Performance, Oliver Wise, has a point.

Wise used the image to describe the challenging work of finding projects particularly ripe for partnership. Number one on the truffle pig data partnership checklist is the potential for “spillover.” The phrase gets at a crucial component of successful shared initiatives in the data innovation realm: capacity-building. For small, nimble teams, prioritizing the projects that will generate something larger than their own scope is paramount. That “larger” outcome – spillover – will vary by project, ranging from political will to relationship-building to growing technical capacity. What’s shared is an investment in the projects most likely to yield sustainable and scalable initiatives – where the relationships meet the road.

As these case studies illustrate, building partnerships across sectors is a smart investment for small teams tasked with delivering projects of towering scale and considerable complexity. Beyond realizing efficiencies in strategic alignment of each stakeholder’s assets and capacities, cross-sector partnerships have value beyond project execution. Strong relationships across sectors and diverse stakeholders support an ecosystem of collaboration and innovation – a key ingredient for the smart city.

About the Author

Jess Weaver

Jess Weaver is a Research Assistant and Writer for Data-Smart City Solutions. Before joining the Ash Center, Jess worked as a researcher on a field mapping project on civic media for the MacArthur Foundation while completing her Master’s degree in Civic Media, Art and Practice out of the Emerson College Engagement Lab. She spent the bulk of her career in nonprofit strategic communications and corporate social responsibility, most recently as the Communications Director for Essential Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit that equips individuals and communities to engage in constructive dialogue across differences in identity.