Charles Chieppo Grey

By Charles Chieppo • May 1, 2015

This post originally appeared on Stephen Goldsmith's Better Faster Cheaper blog on

If, as predicted, the tough fiscal times for state and local governments don't end anytime soon, the pressure to embrace innovation will increase. A New Orleans plan that uses data analytics to identify structures that are most vulnerable to fires and distribute smoke alarms to their residents is an example of how local leaders can find ways to do more with less.

New Orleans, like other cities that have responded to the ongoing fiscal challenge by establishing units focused on innovation, developed an Office of Performance and Accountability (OPA). In March the city took the next step, unveiling NOLAlytics, a cross-departmental unit focused on using data to improve government performance. Its first program is Targeted Smoke Alarm Outreach, a joint effort between OPA and the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD).

New Orleans had 22 fatalities from building fires from 2010 to 2014. In almost every fatal fire, the structure had no smoke alarm installed.

By compiling data from sources like the 2011 American Housing Survey, the 2013 American Community Survey, the 2010 Census and NOFD, the city determined that poverty among building inhabitants, building age and how long the residents have lived in a building are the best predictors that a structure may not have a smoke alarm installed. What the city found was that nearly 19 percent of homes that were built before 1950 and are inhabited by residents with household incomes below twice the federal poverty level who have lived there since at least 2000 have no alarm.

The city then determined that those over 65 and under 5 are most likely to die in building fires. It took the age data, added information about which areas of the city saw the highest concentration of fires over the previous five years, and mapped it. Finally, the likelihood of having a smoke alarm, residents' age and fire-concentration data were combined to rank every zone of the city based on the need for smoke alarms.

NOFD is using the data to focus its door-to-door program to install free smoke alarms. New Orleans expects to distribute more than 7,500 alarms by the end of the year, all of them paid for by the Louisiana State Fire Marshall and the American Red Cross.

The Targeted Smoke Alarm Outreach Program reflects a focus on prevention that is better for residents and easier on the city's bottom line. The New Orleans Fire Department would have little time to fight fires if it had to inquire at every city dwelling about the need for smoke alarms. Thanks to data analytics, it can focus its efforts where they are most needed.