The Role of Whimsy and the Rise of the Metro Data Geek in Nashville's Innovation Practices

Nashville's co-chief innovation officer on the city's key takeaways from the City Accelerator.
May 11, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Nashville has the unique distinction of having two innovation officers -- one of whom is an accomplished scholar, auditor and researcher, former Peace Corps volunteer, self-proclaimed data geek, and former Mayor of Palo Alto, California -- all in one. It's like having a multidimensional staff all wrapped up in a single individual.

Yiaway Yeh was elected to the Palo Alto City Council in 2007 and was selected by the council to serve as the city's mayor on January 3, 2012. He became the second youngest person ever to hold that position and the first Chinese American. Yeh holds an undergraduate degree in political science from American University's School of Public Affairs and a master’s in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He served in the Peace Corps in Africa and was an auditor for the city of Oakland prior his election in Palo Alto. He was born in San Francisco to immigrant parents from Taiwan, who came to the United States for graduate school.
Yeh came to Nashville as a self described trailing spouse when his wife accepted a position at Vanderbilt University. On April 26, 2013, he accepted an offer from Mayor Karl Dean to become co-chief innovation officer for metro Nashville.
In the short video (above) and the longer podcast episode below, Yeh talks about the city's key learnings through the City Accelerator, including the intersection of data and the hard work of doing the public's business -- all served with a side of whimsy.
A big believer in the power of interaction as a means for generating new ideas and new solutions, Yeh comments on his findings so far: "Some of the lessons have been the need to convene and the need to convene on a regular basis across departments so that you can actually have shared learning where people can talk about their experiences. So much of what we have learned is that issues are not limited just to one department."
Considering that the term "geek" is often used in an unflattering way when discussing those who deal with data and digital technology on a regular basis, Yeh doesn't retreat. In fact, he uses this common moniker to inject an element of fun into an otherwise dry and sometimes even dismal daily grind.
"Sometimes bringing a little bit of whimsy to the practice of data is very important," he says. "When we first convened what we affectionately call our Data Geek Network, we asked the leaders, What can we do to celebrate our 'geekiness'? And they created a very small, very kind of symbolic bracelet that uses alphanumeric numbers that says 'Metro Data Geek.'" Yeh notes that "it creates a sense of camaraderie," and helps those from different departments to identify each other and find those in similar roles facing similar challenges -- "fellow professionals."
In summing up the effect of City Accelerator on the overall climate for innovation in Nashville government, he offers, "Over the last six months [it] has been just a great driver for thinking through what exactly what have we done and to really capture it so that we can share it, we can assess it and also learn from it." He also praises the convening of professionals from other cities within the cohort for providing a means of "peer-to-peer sharing" and analyzing common problems and issues. "To have that kind of peer network is just incredible," he says.
"The employees of government, when they have an idea and they are given the space to be able to pursue that idea, particularly in partnership with the community … our traditional kind of frontline employees don't always have that chance." Yeh concludes that the best course is "to get out there and work directly with the community to bring to life those narratives, those hidden narratives" as a means of making the obscure, intimidating and somewhat mysterious field of data management more of a practical and even vital part of the process of better government.
It might have happened by chance or maybe it was just good fortune, but it is clear that Nashville benefits greatly from the diversity of talents and backgrounds represented in its two chief innovation officers, a pairing that Yeh’s co-chief, Kristine LaLonde, jokingly refers to as an "arranged marriage." As I noted in last week’s Innovation Perspectives post, which featured LaLonde, due to term limits, the administration of current Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is rapidly winding down. Only a few months remain before a new mayor comes on the scene. As an outside observer who has watched and experienced the dramatic transformation and advancement of Nashville over the years, let me say that we should all sincerely hope that the new ideas, new tools and effective solutions gained since the inception of Dean's Office of Innovation have by now been so thoroughly embedded in the bureaucratic fabric of Nashville metro that the spirit of progress will continue unabated.
You can hear more from Yiaway in his own words on the role of data in Nashville's serendipity practice and the rise of the metro data geek in this City Accelerator edition of the podcast, For The Record (6:07).

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.