4 Ways to Modernize Data

Take these steps and usher in a new era of better services.
November 2017
Tod Newcombe
By Tod Newcombe  |  Columnist

The Boston Transportation Department has gotten smart. Of course, it’s always relied on data to manage traffic and plan new initiatives. But now, the agency is taking it further -- a lot further.

To give you an idea, here’s just a sampling of its current data projects: The agency is collecting data via online surveys with city residents on what they want for future mobility and transportation needs. Then, it’s turning around and making the responses available to the public, who can sort through the proposals by ZIP code or neighborhood. It’s using data from emergency management, public health and public safety departments to get more comprehensive information on such factors as road safety and environmental resiliency to inform its planning processes. It’s also gathering data sets from the private sector, such as the mobility app Waze, to find out in real time what congestion points are most affecting commuting times in the city.

“We’re getting data a lot faster and from more sources,” says Gina N. Fiandaca, the city’s transportation commissioner. It’s allowing the agency to do its job better, she adds.

Making all this possible is the rapid proliferation of interconnected devices, from sensors in the streets to smartphones and other mobile devices. Highly scalable processing power and falling data storage costs are also spurring data sharing and new forms of analytics that yield valuable intelligence. But to take advantage of all these new kinds of data and new data sources, governments have to overcome their outdated systems and policies.

In a recent report, the Brookings Institution looks at the changes needed to modernize data use in transportation and planning, but the lessons can be applied to just about any city or county activity. In four steps, here’s how a city can up its data game:

First, local governments need to beef up their skilled personnel. Most cities and counties “don’t have enough data scientists on staff,” says Adie Tomer, a fellow at Brookings and co-author of the report. “They don’t have to be true data scientists, but someone with the background to use data in a more scientific way.”

Second, localities should tap into the processing power of the cloud rather than invest in new servers and software. The cloud brings versatility and flexibility to real-time data projects. Using it opens up innovation in a number of ways, such as easier licensing of data sets from the private sector, says Tomer.

Third, cities and counties must change their procurement practices, putting less emphasis on purchasing capital goods, such as computers and software, and making it easier to procure technology subscriptions, which favor the broad array of cloud services now available. “Subscription fees are now part of the economic model,” says Tomer. “There’s no stopping it at this point.”

And last, local governments have to figure out how to allow data sharing without jeopardizing privacy. One solution is to use aggregated data that is anonymous. But if too much detail is left out, the data has diminished value. Tomer doesn’t see a quick answer to the problem. “All signs point to a major conversation around this issue in the coming years,” he says.

For most places, these are big changes. And while they may not happen overnight, just taking some initial steps in this direction can generate new ideas that can lead to significant benefits for any agency. Just look at Boston. Modernizing where they get their data from and the types of data they use has freed them up to consider all kinds of new opportunities. For instance, they’ve begun exploring the possibility of having one mobile app that would allow users to pay for services across a range of transportation options, from public transit to bike-sharing and Uber rides.