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A Permanent Place for Data Analytics

In codifying its innovative operation into law, New York City has provided a useful guide for other localities.

New York City Hall at night
New York City Hall
We teach (and preach) innovation in government to local officials who often ask about how to institutionalize their new technologies and processes. One reassuring answer to this question came in November, when the New York City Council approved legislation guaranteeing the continued support of the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics (MODA).

By amending the city charter to make MODA a permanent part of its government, "we will ensure that the effective, responsible use of data remains a fundamental part of how New York City operates," said Mayor Bill de Blasio. The legislation, Local Law 222, details the types of projects the office will undertake, how it will collaborate across the city, and how its staff members will fulfill their multifaceted roles as data stewards, analysts, integrators and educators.

The law "marks the first time a major city has codified a data analytics office into law," according to Kelly Jin, the city's chief analytics officer and MODA's director. It lays out a road map other cities might follow when structuring and institutionalizing their own data analytics operations.

The origins of MODA date back to 2010, when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg began to develop an analytics shop that would work with various agencies throughout the city. ( I was involved in this development while serving as deputy mayor.) While the incipient idea of a data-analytics center didn't immediately take off, given budgeteers' concerns about return on investment, opportunistic pilot projects proved the worth of the initiative, and when de Blasio took office, he recognized that value. In recent years, its efforts have ranged across city operations, from prioritizing outreach efforts for universal pre-K to addressing a disease outbreak to guiding enforcement efforts targeting landlords accused of tenant harassment.

Local Law 222 specifies that MODA should collaborate with agencies across the city, in addition to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and the mayor's offices of operations, economic opportunity and information privacy. MODA not only undertakes data analytics on behalf of specific agencies but also recognizes and spreads the data innovations generated by creative government employees. And MODA's responsibilities include ensuring that offices share their data as openly as possible. The bottom line is that MODA not only analyzes but also stewards data. Its staff members are problem-solvers and collaborators as well as disseminators of innovative work.

But MODA's mandate goes further. It is tasked with advising agencies on best practices not only for analyzing, integrating and sharing data but also for procuring new data systems and hiring and training staff. That latter function is a crucial and often overlooked component of data analytics offices. Data analysis is not solely a technological concern, but also requires the development of human capital. For that reason, the city has entrusted MODA to work across agencies to promote staff competencies and to design hiring, promotion and retention pipelines for offices looking to build up their own internal data-analysis capacity.

The city also has charged MODA with maintaining an open analytics library to share source code from city projects with the public. The benefits of this are multifaceted: Open source has the capacity to improve transparency and accountability, foster the swift replication of valuable solutions, enable continuous improvements from government sources as well as the public, and grow institutional knowledge. Through Local Law 222, the city is emphasizing that the power of data analytics should be readily accessible to everyone.

Finally, MODA is to serve as the designated point of contact for outside partners working with public data sets and guide the training not only of agency staff but also of community boards and members of the public on the use of the city's open-data web portal. These mandates recognize that the success of open data is not just about pushing data out but also making sure that people both inside and outside government are able to use it effectively.

In enacting Local Law 222, New York City is ensuring its own future as far as data analytics are concerned. Boosters of data analytics within other local governments should use the legislation as a guide as they work to advance their own efforts.

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Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School Bloomberg Center for Cities and director of the Data Smart City Solutions Program and the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at
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