City Government

The tremendous untapped power of data to reinvent city services

As more agencies embrace digital tools to improve health care, education, safety, and other basic government services, the public conversation should keep pace with technology.

By Shaina Doar

Photograph from above of people walking on a street with painted crosswalks

Today local governments are faced with enormous challenges: growing inequity, lack of trust in elected officials and frontline services workers, and extreme budget pressures from dwindling federal support and rising legacy costs, such as pensions. But unlike other major industries, government hasn't yet realized the power of big data to help with its biggest problems. In its recent digitization index, McKinsey ranked "government" a dismal 18th out of 22 economic sectors in terms of overall adoption of digital technology.

The costs of this delay are vast. McKinsey estimates that, by 2020, better government usage of big data analytics could produce productivity gains of $95 billion a year, and savings of up to $460 billion --- money that could be funneled back into critical programs. Those startling figures represent a huge missed opportunity to revolutionize the delivery of health care, education, public safety, and other basic services, greatly improving quality of life for more Americans as a result.

Of course, data alone can't solve all the problems listed above, and certainly not without appropriate policies, resources, and training. But the potential to reinvent service delivery using better data is too great to ignore.

Fortunately some U.S. public agencies are starting to embrace big data as a proactive tool to deliver better public services. A clear example of this shift is the rise of Chief Data Scientists and Officers in government life, with states like Colorado and cities like New York and Chicago appointing these positions a few years ago. The White House recently joined the club, appointing D.J. Patil as the country's data chief in early 2015 with a mission to "responsibly unleash the power of data to benefit all Americans," and releasing multiple reports on the impact data can have on privacy, equity, and civil rights.

At a Ford Foundation talk this May, Patil mentioned government services as one way to achieve the mission of using data to enrich everyone's lives:

Everybody touches the government in some way. What do those services look like when they are engendered with the DNA of technology and data that's at the cutting edge?

The question of what government services like health care, public safety, and education might look like when driven by data is a critical one. For big data to fulfill its public mission, it must empower frontline workers in these sectors to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively, ultimately delivering people a better experience. I'd argue data can vastly improve the provision of services in a number of ways:

Personalization. Data analytics have the potential to help frontline workers personalize services for local residents, creating benefits that address individual needs or circumstances rather than relying on the one-size-fits all approach necessary in the past. One example is a criminal justice reform called the Public Safety Assessment, a data-driven tool that helps judges evaluate whether defendants should be released or held before trial. Developed using data from more than 1.5 million pretrial case records, the PSA bases its assessment on a person's criminal history, current charge, and age. It's been shown to be race-neutral and to preserve public safety while reducing unnecessary incarceration in already crowded prisons, according to the Arnold Foundation.

Efficiency. By measuring their service delivery performance, cities have already taken steps to optimize them in the public interest. Chicago's the Department of Innovation and Technology, for instance, recently built an algorithm to predict health code violations in restaurants, which helped officials prioritize inspections and keep residents healthy. Based on nine variables from violation history to location, and using non-obvious data sources such as 311-reported data, the model identified detected violations a week earlier than the traditional inspection system did. Other cities have used data to improve efficiency of benefits management and homelessness services.

Adaptability. Real-time data can give frontline workers the feedback they need to continually improve their delivery of public services. This transformation is already underway in education. At Summit Public Schools in Redwood City, California, teachers regularly analyze data and information on student outcomes, enabling them to adapt lessons and shift approaches based on individual progress. Adaptive learning tools are now widely available through companies like Knewton, whose digital platform provides real-time lesson analytics and recommendations.

Transparency. Open data keeps government services accountable to the public. Using New York City's open data portal, data scientist Ben Wellington recently mapped the location of cars ticketed for parking in front of a pedestrian ramp --- something that's legal if the ramp doesn't lead to a crosswalk. Wellington notified the city, and a couple weeks the NYPD responded that it would send a training message to precinct commanders and digitally monitor these summonses moving forward. Wellington summed up the significance best at his I Quant NY blog:

Democracies provide pathways for government to learn from their citizens. Open data makes those pathways so much more powerful.

Community. At its best, big data can strengthen civic participation and a sense of belonging. Singapore's myResponder program is a great example. The crowd-sourcing app notifies any CPR-trained emergency first responder when someone nearby is in need of an emergency services. The program not only dramatically increases chances of survival but helps build community among participants.

Let's not kid ourselves --- there are significant barriers to using big data in ways that help people get the most from their public services. Quality data often remain hard to locate, and data-selection biases can compromise analytical models. Many local governments lack the resources and personnel to collect and evaluate big data. Some officials see technology as an end-all solution rather than a tool to help achieve policy goals, which can lead to top-down digital systems built for community groups, rather than with their input.

Perhaps most importantly, any benefits of data-driven services must also be balanced by a sophisticated privacy framework that protects personal information.

These challenges are all the more reason why it's time for cities to engage with local residents about their concerns over connected technologies, and to study the lessons being learned from cities engaged in similar efforts and conversations around the world --- from Barcelona's Smart City to Estonia's e-government to Chicago's new Array of Things. No one has all the answers to these tricky questions, but the discussion has begun and must keep up with the times.

"This is a conversation that we can't just afford to have at a regular pace," said Patil in May. "It's a conversation that's moving at the clip and pace of technology, which is unbelievable. So we have to match that pace."

Local officials have a civic duty not only to save lives, improve health and well-being, and protect civil rights, but to do so using taxpayer funding in the most responsible way possible. Data-driven social services can help achieve all those goals. The conversation can't just stop at acknowledging the barriers. It's time to overcome them.