Cities Ramp Up Data Projects

Better ways of using data can speed up solutions to urban issues. But a number of traditional problems stand in the way.
by | May 9, 2013

Dubuque, Iowa, has a population of just under 60,000, but it's doing something few other cities of its size have ever tried. It's embedding technology in utility meters to collect and analyze water, gas and electricity use; it's even using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to track how some people move about to gain a better understanding of the city's traffic and transportation issues. Residents and city managers alike now have access to information about energy and water use -- information they can use to cut consumption costs and gain savings.

Dubuque's experiment is part of a growing trend in government towards more data and better uses for it. State and local governments will spend $58 billion on information technology in 2013, according to the market analyst firm Gartner. And while the ongoing fiscal problems have slowed IT investments, the use of technology and automation in states and localities will continue to grow, particularly where big data and analytics are concerned.

The data explosion can be broken down into two groups. First, there's the big data movement, where cities, counties and states have vastly increased the amount of data they collect, whether it's from smart meters or information captured by processes that have become automated. Using sophisticated software tools, officials can analyze the data collected and predict with great accuracy what should be done next. For instance, Chicago now knows with great precision that when the city gets complaints about garbage bins in a certain neighborhood, calls about rats will inevitably follow one week later.

The second group is the open data movement. Increasingly, cities are releasing data sets to the public for scrutiny and use. In New York City, open data has led to apps that can tell city residents the location of wi-fi hot spots, the results of restaurant inspections, yearly power use by ZIP code and maps of public parks.

This spring, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government launched the initiative Data-Smart City Solutions, which pushes for more data sharing between city agencies in hopes that as more cross-agency data is analyzed, city leaders will preemptively address civic problems with innovative results. Why the push? Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis and professor of government at the Kennedy School (and contributor to Governing.com), said that cities with data initiatives are shifting from "reactive service delivery to prescriptive solutions. Infrastructure that we always thought had limited capacity to be enhanced can be technologically recalibrated to help improve urban sustainability."

The number of open data projects is growing daily. So are we at a tipping point, where a new golden age of city innovation is about to burst forth? Well, not quite.

The cities where data is gospel tend to be the country's largest, says Bill Schrier, former CIO for the city of Seattle and deputy director for the Center for Digital Government (which is run by e.Republic, the parent company of Governing). "But it hasn't [generally] gotten down to the mid- and small-sized cities," he says.

Data governance issues are another stumbling block. Who owns the data? Who controls the data? That's what Schrier refers to as the official regulatory environment, such as the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services, which set limits on how personal data for health-care and criminal justice background checks can be used. Then there's what Schrier calls the unofficial regulatory environment, which can slow down a data sharing effort. Take business licenses. "Do we want that information to be posted in an open data set that any member of the public might be able to see?" he asks.

If there's one city agency taking advantage of big data and analytics, it's the police department. "They are really pushing the envelope," says Schrier. He cites how law enforcement agencies have become adept at giving officers high value information. For example, when officers approach a suspect's premises, they know whether the water or electricity has been shut off, whether there are any outstanding warrants, or even if the suspect or anyone else living in the home has a gun permit. "It's intelligence," he says, "that helps cops know in advance what's going on."

Another potential big user of big data could be local human service agencies. Child protective service workers could benefit from cross sharing of data to find out in real time whether a home involving potential child abuse or neglect has a history of EMS calls, police responses or reports of weapons in the home. But the human services sector has been slow to take advantage of data sharing so far.

One of the more intriguing possibilities is the potential for sharing data and applications between cities. Last year, Governing technology columnist, Steve Towns, reported on a program involving seven major cities to create a database of standardized open data applications that could be shared among member cities: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. Known has the G7 Initiative, the hope is that as open data sets proliferate and more applications come online, they can be used by different cities. "That's a real boon to the city because I don't have to spend taxpayer dollars to create them," said San Francisco CIO Jon Walton.

Boston plans to share its Citizen Connect app with more than 100 communities in Massachusetts. The app will allow residents to report problems to the city's hotline via their smartphone. Soon, a person in nearby Cambridge can report a problem they see in Boston or in the suburb of Somerville, for example.

But in order for apps to share data between cities, the data has to be in the same format. Unfortunately, many cities came up with their own designs for data sets back in the early days of computing. Incompatible data prevails. While the G7 Initiative is a step in the right direction, getting all cities to use the same schema for common data is a slow, grinding process.

One day, there may be an app that does just that, but not yet.

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