What are CDOs’ 2021 Priorities?

By Betsy Gardner • January 27, 2021

“2020 alerted cities to the broad power of data. 2021 will alert city leaders to how one can perform better, faster, and cheaper through the application of data,” said Stephen Goldsmith, Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Recently, Data-Smart asked Chief Data Officers (CDOs) from the Civic Analytics Network to reflect back on the important lessons from the past year and, despite the significant hardships of 2020, highlight their important contributions and successes. Now, using the lessons learned from last year, these CDOs are predicting the upcoming year in data.

Increasing Demand

One of the common themes from all the CDOs was the increased demand for data. As Miami’s Chief Innovation Officer and Director of Innovation and Technology Mike Sarasti explained, “The appetite for data has tremendously increased and data insights are becoming the norm. This presents both opportunities and challenges to city staff.” Understandably, the novel coronavirus significantly changed the type and amount of data that was necessary for governance. The COVID-19 pandemic “drove public and private leaders to data and evidence,” agreed Goldsmith. “The public and its leaders quickly became glued to the visualization of data on nightly maps, whether released by a governor or mayor or Johns Hopkins.” This trend will unfortunately not be going away in 2021, as the virus remains an ongoing public health crisis.

Additionally, local governments needed to map and visualize the effects of the virus, like “the determination of which school or restaurant should be open and under what circumstances,” said Goldsmith. The inability to gather in person and the need to share accurate information rapidly will continue to bring local governments and residents back to the data, particularly around novel coronavirus infections, changing restrictions and regulations, and vaccine distribution. And with other departments and government agencies seeing the success of data collection, visualization, and insights during the pandemic, CDOs are gearing up to handle more requests in 2021.

Budgetary Constraints

Of course, governments across the country are also struggling with budget cuts.In Philadelphia, some 2021 budget reductions are up to 20 percent, which makes it challenging to implement any new initiatives and will likely impact ongoing projects. Many CDOs are concerned about continuing or starting new projects in 2021, as their department or team budgets shrink. But according to Goldsmith, city leaders should recognize that data is a worthwhile investment: “Identifying causes of a problem with data can lead to earlier and less expensive interventions. Hopefully, 2021 helps budget officials see the CDO as a driver of value, not as an expense item.”

Most projects that the CAN CDOs are working on will be immensely beneficial to residents; individual cities are focusing on projects like determining equitable racial representation in data, transitioning government employees to remote work, and identifying and correcting inequities in 311 responses. For example, Allegheny County’s Director of Performance & Analytics Joanne Foerster helped launch the Hello Baby initiative late in 2020, which uses data from the county to provide resources to all new parents. The initiative utilizes a predictive risk model to better identify local new parents who could use additional support, flexible service delivery, and early intervention. And in Miami, creative economic recovery efforts that center around data partnerships are underway. The city’s Recovery Report looks at weekly data on economic indicators, relying on data sharing partnerships with Mastercard, Miami Parking Authority, and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Recovery Report visualizes the impact of COVID-19 on “parking, business licensing, business activity, tourism, and unemployment” according to Sarasti, and is helping city management and business leaders track a path toward economic recovery.

Budgets cuts outside of the data department will also affect operations. Paul Kresser, Denver’s CDO, said that he is “anticipating an even greater demand for data services in 2021 as our agencies look to leverage data to help compensate for reductions to their operating budget.” Data-driven budget management is key for governing during a crisis; therefore, many CDOs anticipate increasing requests for analytical reviews of department spending and data-driven ideas for reducing spending while maintaining services.

One of the most important themes from 2020 that all CDOs will be continuing to focus on in 2021 is racial equity. In Denver, Kresser’s data team will continue to assist the city’s Office of Social Equity & Innovation in “collecting and analyzing data that helps increase systems, policies, and practices that sustain social equity, race, and social justice.” And in Syracuse, CDO Nicolas Diaz Amigo is looking forward to helping advance racial justice by building a culture of accountability, transparency, and data-sharing with the city’s police department. Diaz Amigo hopes to “go beyond just reporting on basic metrics — we want to make sure they are digestible and easy to understand by the public.”

“In 2020, governments moved from an on/off switch to a rheostat operated by data.” said Goldsmith. This shift was motivated in large part by the pandemic and by increased demands for racial justice, which must continue in 2021. As evidenced above, CDOs are rising to this task, and Data-Smart will continue to support and celebrate their work in the next year.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.