Using data to make decisions and allocate resources is a key requirement of being a smart city in the 21st century. But getting started is often tough, there are political barriers to data access, data quality and change management issues, as well as a host of other challenges to be confronted.
In my years inside local government, I have seen these issues from many perspectives. I have seen them as a staffer to a local legislative body, as a city administrator overseeing planning and code enforcement, working on vacant property initiatives, and even as a senior member in the Mayor’s Office.
While each perspective presents unique challenges, keep these five tips in mind to make getting started as a data-driven city a smoother process:
Stay Policy Focused
Look for Quality, Not Quantity
Don’t Wait for Technology
1 . Stay Policy Focused
Start with data-driven ways to support current policy priorities and hot topics. Maybe your city is trying to identify areas to focus anti-blight initiatives, monitor development activity, identify unregistered rental properties, or prioritize sites for economic development.
Whatever the issue is, it is critically important to be using data to answer questions that are being asked right now. This is a great way to ensure your use of data is operationalized and not just an academic exercise.
2. Look for Quality, Not Quantity
Many city data initiatives start with an inventory of available datasets. While understanding the data landscape in your city is a worthwhile effort, don’t try to warehouse or analyze all your data at once.
Instead deliver data-driven results in the short term by focusing on a few key datasets that support the policies and topics that are most pressing (see Tip 1). This will allow you to focus resources on data quality as well as returning the most accurate results possible.
3. Don’t Wait for Technology
Your backend systems will never be perfect. Don’t obsess over major technology implementations to solve all your data problems. It is unlikely that you will have the resources to overhaul all your backend systems in the near-term and even those systems you do upgrade will always have some limitations.
Focus on the data you can extract today and how you can automate and replicate that process across multiple systems in order to derive valuable insights.
4. Be Scrappy
Virtually every city, no matter the size, has data in spreadsheets, legacy systems, and other locations where data extraction is traditionally challenging. Don’t let this stop you from using this data to make decisions. Instead, use the tools you have and come up with creative ways to track, clean, and use data.
Don’t be afraid to get scrappy. Here at Tolemi, we have helped cities write Powershell scripts to extract data from spreadsheets, Access databases, locally hosted applications, and a variety of other sources. We have also set up Google Sheets that validate parcel addresses, scripts that extract data from auto-emailed reports, and browser automation tools to automatically run reports.
Working across departments, organizations, and levels of government will help you find the best available data and tools to perform the analysis you want to perform. This process will often expose some data and solutions you weren’t aware of, and also help mitigate politically barriers to data access.
It is highly likely that other departments and agencies would benefit greatly from access to your information and vice versa. This symbiotic relationship is a great way to foster collaboration and break down data silos.
Jonathan Hollinger is a Lead Solutions Manager at Tolemi where he helps cities derive valuable insights from their data. He has more then seven years experience inside local government working on diverse public policy issues ranging from vacant properties, affordable housing, transportation planning, and pension reform.