April 13, 2022

How Small Cities Can Make Big Leaps With Data

You don’t have to be a big city to do big things with data.

That’s an unmistakable takeaway from some of the latest cities to achieve What Works Cities Certification, a designation that means they are among the best in the U.S. at using data to deliver better results for their residents.

A number of smaller cities have reached this milestone in recent months, including Athens, Ga. (population 125,000), Evanston, Ill. (75,000), Longmont, Colo. (94,000), and South Bend, Ind. (102,000). By contrast, the average population among the first group of cities to become Certified back in 2018 was over 1 million. A total of 55 cities are now What Works Cities Certified.

To find out how small- and medium-sized cities are upping their game in this area, Bloomberg Cities talked with data leads in five cities whose Certified status was announced recently. They include Athens and Longmont, as well as Henderson, Nev. (pop. 300,000), Paterson, N.J. (145,000), and Pittsburgh (300,000).

Their overriding message?  Cities of any size can make big gains with data. “You don’t have to have the budget of a New York City or Los Angeles to be ambitious about using data to make smarter decisions and improve services for residents,” says Florence Julliard of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation team. “What small- and mid-sized cities sometimes lack in resources they are able to make up for in determined leadership and a collaborative spirit among city hall staff.”

Here are five more lessons from the newest Certified cities:

1. Leadership must come from the top.

The nuts-and-bolts work of improving data systems may happen deep in the trenches of City Hall. But the motivation to do it needs to come from the mayor’s or city manager’s office.

That was true in Longmont, says Becky Doyle, executive director of consolidated services for the city. About a decade ago, various city agencies began collecting a lot more data within public safety, utilities, and other service areas. It was when the city manager asked to coordinate that data across agencies that the city’s efforts really took off.

“We had all this information about public safety calls for service, water-main breaks, where people had reported vicious dogs, and many other things,” Doyle says. The leadership push supercharged efforts to pull all that data out of “silos” to get a more “organizational view” of what’s going on in the city. “Leadership support has really driven the participation” of agencies, she adds.

Organizational structure matters. In Athens, Chief Data Officer Joseph D’Angelo says the city’s data efforts go further faster because they’re led out of one of a handful of offices that report directly to the city manager. Likewise, in Paterson, it’s critical that Mayor Andre Sayegh is a big champion of using data to serve residents better. “Culture change has to come from the very top,” says Chief Data Officer Harsha Mallajoysula. “Leadership has to be invested in it before everyone else will get invested in it.”

2. Someone needs to own the job of improving data practices.

In terms of staffing structures and job titles related to data, the five newly Certified cities vary in a lot of ways. One thing they have in common: A person or people in charge of overseeing data efforts across the organization.

In Henderson, that’s Laura Shearin’s team within the Office of Performance and Innovation. In Athens, that’s D’Angelo and colleagues in the Geospatial Information Office. And in In Pittsburgh, that’s Chris Belasco’s office within the Department of Innovation and Performance. A few years ago, Belasco’s bosses “decided to elevate my role,” he says, “from being just a project manager who was running enterprise stuff to actually running a little data shop that involved bringing engineers and analysts under the same house.”

In small cities, these staffs are almost always lean. While being able to hire more people would always help, says Longmont’s Doyle, what’s most important is that the people you do have understand the value of what City Hall is doing with data and are able to communicate that effectively across the organization. “A lot of people think they can’t do this without a team of 25 analysts—but that’s rarely the point,” Doyle says. “We’ve gotten this far without anyone who has the word ‘data’ in their title.”

Paterson’s Mallajoysula says smaller cities may even enjoy some advantages over big ones. Mallajoysula worked on the data team in Los Angeles before moving to Paterson to kick-start data efforts there, so he’s seen it from both vantage points.  “In Los Angeles, almost every big department had their own data analysts, so there were a lot of technical skills across the organization,” Mallajoysula says. “But L.A. is a big city with a big bureaucracy. It takes time for things to move. In a smaller city like Paterson, things can move really quickly.”

3. Data is a team sport.

All of the newly certified cities have built strong systems for sharing and collaborating across agencies. Henderson, for example, has created a single platform where agencies share their data. “Prior to that, everybody had their super-secret Excel spreadsheets on their own computers,” Shearin says. “They were looking at their own data but not really sharing it with each other.”

Henderson also made a big shift from each department doing its own planning to having departments team up on what they call “major opportunity areas”—and share data in the process. “Take homelessness,” Shearin says. “It’s not a Police problem. It’s not a Community Development or Neighborhood Services problem. It’s a problem. And we’re going to bring everybody together to work on that.”

A big driver of progress in Longmont is a Data Governance Working group, which informally calls itself the “Slaying the Data Dragon” team. It’s made up of a few dozen people from across city government who have connections to how agencies handle data, and they meet twice a month. One of the first items they tackled was doing a data inventory—essentially mapping out all the different datasets different agencies keep so that they can begin to see areas of shared interest. A second committee chaired by the city manager and made up of department leaders meets quarterly to make decisions and set policy.

“Broad participation is critical,” Doyle says. “It’s about getting over the idea that data is IT’s job. No—this is all of us. And we need to be collectively responsible for it.”

4. Make data useful to decision makers and residents.

Improving data practices can involve a lot of process. But the end goal is very tangible. It’s about putting city leaders in a position to make better decisions, to engage the public in more productive conversations, and to improve residents’ lives.

In Henderson, data on emergency response times—and specifically, the survivability of heart attacks—is guiding where city leaders invest in rescue capacity. Thanks to recent improvements in fire stations, response times on the city’s east side have dropped 30 seconds, “which is huge in the emergency services world,” Shearin says.

One innovation Henderson has come up with to make data useful up and down the management ladder is a tiered system. Detailed operational data that front-line workers need in their day-to-day work is classified as Tier One. Tier Two data is for mid-level managers to get an aggregate view on the areas they supervise. And Tier Three is for the mayor, city manager, and other top leadership to get the big picture of how the city is performing.

“We used to have all kinds of reports that were going all the way up to the city manager level, that contained stuff like how many potholes were filled,” says Polly Walker, a business process consultant for the city. “And it got to the point where no one was reading those reports because it wasn’t important to them. Having that classification system now ensures that the right information gets to the right people.”

Communicating data to residents is critical, too. In Pittsburgh, a data hub known as “Dashburgh” has become a popular way for residents to get frequently updated data on everything from equity efforts to 311 calls in their city. And in Athens, city leaders are using data to inform a discussion about renewing a one-cent local sales tax to pay for transportation projects. The city put its data on pavement conditions, sidewalks, streetlights, and other key infrastructure on its open-data portal. Community groups used this information to formulate and pitch a list of projects that, after some whittling, will go before voters in May.

5. Look outside city hall for help and inspiration.

Bloomberg Philanthropies and its partners have built supports for cities of all sizes to take their data work to the next level. For example, Longmont and Pittsburgh tapped into training from GovEx at the Johns Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact for help setting up data governance systems. Athens learned about how to conduct randomized control trials in a training with the Behavioral Insights Team.

Cities aiming to achieve the rigorous standards of  What Works Cities Certification get access to technical assistance related to key foundational practices such as data governance, evaluation, or results-based contracting to help get there. Mayors and senior city leaders who participate in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative have access to world-class data coaching. And the new Bloomberg Philanthropies City Data Alliance is aimed at identifying the 100 cities across the Americas that are the most sophisticated at harnessing data and set a new standard for what data-driven local government can do.

“Taking advantage of those types of experiences is definitely helpful because it helps you branch out and do things that you probably wouldn’t have had the capacity or knowledge to do otherwise,” says Athens’ Paige Seago, an open-data technician. Connecting with peers in other cities is a big benefit as well, she adds. “Opportunities where you can work with a cohort that includes people from other cities is very useful, to see how different people and cities are doing things.”

Paterson’s Mallajoysula has found partnering with universities to be a force multiplier. He’s had success recruiting volunteers to work on data projects through his alma mater, the University of California, and sees university partnerships as a way to build both capacity and momentum for data-driven work in local government. “Cities are always looking for external sources of funding,” Mallajoysula says. “There’s a great opportunity to partner with universities to include a research or evidence-based policymaking element both to make your application stronger and to evaluate programs.”