Philadelphia GIS Structure Drives Deeper Data Insights

By Stephen Goldsmith • APRIL 16, 2021

This article originally appeared in Government Technology.

In many ways, “doing more with less” is the mantra of city government, and in the modern smart city, more cities are trying to pull more analytic power and utility out of existing systems. One solution is the evolving and broadening role of the chief data officer. In Philadelphia, CDO and Geographical Information Officer Henry (Hank) Garie demonstrates a path toward doing more within existing structures and systems.

Philadelphia’s comprehensive approach is even reflected in Garie’s unique title. A member of the Civic Analytics Network, a group of city CDOs we facilitate at the Harvard Kennedy School, he is the only one who occupies the dual position of CDO and geographical information officer. Garie’s joint appointment elevates a new model of structuring organizations to accelerate the use and adoption of analytics.

For years, many cities buried the GIS functions down below management levels, tucked inside other agencies. Typically, a GIS technician would respond to a request (generally from an official) asking them to map some city service. Of course, it wasn’t until six years ago that the CDO job widely existed. The huge amounts of data hidden away in city digital file cabinets were generally viewed as transactional — a software system designed to help fill a pothole or clean out a sewer. Increasingly, however, cities are recognizing that data is an asset, and that the analysis of that data will help the city operate more effectively. It’s time for the same maturation and development of the GIS role.

Together with Philadelphia CIO Mark Wheeler, Garie deepens the city’s use of data. Even the consolidation of functions into a single position like Garie’s demonstrates a commitment to pulling more capacity out of the existing software and data.

Many of us who have worked in city hall are familiar with the constant consideration of what functions should be housed in the agencies and which capacities should be in the CIO’s office. Philadelphia’s answer is both. GIS talent in the IT department supports the agency, but individuals familiar with applying GIS also exist in other departments. Garie established the GeXchange, a geo-exchange governance structure that meets monthly so that GIS managers and data leads can come together across departments and share success stories and challenges. Just a few years ago, there were fewer than 10 attendees; by 2020, there were consistently 65 attendees each month. This hybrid model facilitates not only talent sharing but also availability and responsiveness to agency needs.

Given the unique model, managing up as well as down is part of the Philadelphia story. A major component of the city’s data success is the role that Wheeler plays by staying involved at the mayoral level and consistently demonstrating how analytics can support policymaking. This provides Garie with an avenue to directly demonstrate the power of spatial analysis and show how GIS can integrate with programmatic tabular data to help solve real problems.

All too often, custom and habit thwart imagination. Understanding the power of analytics — especially as it relates to new approaches and business process re-engineering — is often triggered by an experience in another area. For example, by demonstrating how GIS could aid licenses and inspections by improving customer service, Wheeler built relationships with those departments and showed the power of analytics to senior officials.

This creativity extends to the current pandemic as well. Wheeler explained that the GIS component of the COVID-19 economic recovery task force was developed by cross-agency brainstorming. “It was just a great example of opening the eyes of a whole new group of agency officials about the ways we can help them,” he said.

Philadelphia is constantly mentoring and making sure that individuals with data responsibility that are spread around the departments feel connected, have a professional growth pattern and see the central vision. This powerful work is a model for other cities that want to do more — for marginalized communities, for residents during economic recoveries and for fellow city employees.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is A New City O/S.

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