Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Nashville Learned to Share Data Across Agencies

Enterprisewide systems enable efficiency and community engagement. With its application of GIS, the city-county government is showing the value of that approach.

Downtown Nashville
Downtown Nashville: The metropolitan city-county government has applied GIS and data sharing across agencies as a collaboration platform. (Shutterstock)
Just about every day, those of us who actively watch smart-city developments see some promising technology solution to a specific urban problem. But these encouraging advances can distract us from focusing on the tendency for agencies to look at innovation almost exclusively from inside their own vertical operations.

For a city government to furnish high-quality service, engage well with its communities and solve challenging issues, it must operate as an enterprise, not as a collection of discrete agencies. And that approach requires not just application programming interfaces and point solutions but an enterprise system — a technology platform and data-sharing policies that further citywide solutions and enterprisewide data literacy.

Too often, an agency’s transactional software results in users not having visibility into enterprisewide data that would help them fashion more effective solutions. Residents want to understand policies, zoning or service problems where they live, not in terms of a particular agency. Enterprise technology, when well utilized, provides a platform for problem solving, coordination and communication, which helps officials and residents alike access and visualize intersecting issues.

The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, known locally as Metro, shows the value of this approach in the way it has applied enterprise GIS as a platform for increasing efficiency, producing better workflow among departments and engaging the community.

We recently sat down with Metro’s assistant director of Information Technology Services (ITS), Colleen Herndon, who oversees the GIS and data insights teams, and Keith Durbin, who at the time was Metro’s chief information officer and director of Information Technology Services. We wanted to learn more about their success in applying enterprise software tools. Their explanation began not with a description of the technology but rather with a discussion of the critical features of executive leadership — leadership that includes support from Mayor Freddie O’Connell, who has a tech background, and many of the Metro department directors.

An important ingredient in any effort to help a local government operate more as an enterprise is exciting agency leadership about the potential. Herndon held strategic planning sessions with leadership from 20 of Metro’s largest departments to understand their needs and priorities and identify data requirements and solutions. Before the meetings, which included representatives of Metro’s GIS contractor, Esri, her team researched the goals and priorities of the agencies, which enabled them to ask questions about how better use of GIS enterprise software could help them accomplish those goals.

The planning sessions were “conversations with our GIS team and Esri team where we demonstrated the capabilities of the platform,” Herndon said. “We came out of that with close to 50 pages of notes from which we prioritized, and which led to some big wins. It's amazing how much of an advocate of GIS technology that agencies’ officials became, once they saw how much it could optimize their operations.”

Technical and Human Capacity

After agency management bought into the vision, the next step involved building capacity and empowering individuals to independently handle routine queries. The GIS team needed to provide the infrastructure, technical expertise and training for agencies, with the additional goal of encouraging cross-agency or enterprise sourcing of solutions. Therefore, the effort included a review of system architecture with a focus on facilitating much better internal data sharing. The Information Technology Services team designed multiple interlocking department portals, each built with attention to relevant privacy and user restrictions and, where possible, with a focus on establishing authoritative data.

Training also included encouraging much broader use of GIS tools by field workers and middle managers — call this the query function, where a user asks of the data a what-if question, thus expanding opportunities and use even while the ITS Department continued to offer support for complex analytic needs. This effort involved actively working to onboard departmental users into the portal, starting with frequent ITS team “customers” who up to that point did not have GIS tools available to them. From there, training and consultation extended to data analysis tools and developing policies and practices for data management.

The Nashville team holds up one small agency to illustrate the benefits derived when leadership understands the benefits and applications available from existing software and, in turn, uses it to enhance capacity. The Nashville Beer Board is responsible for alcohol sales permits, which requires it to track complaints and violations, such as underage consumption or where sales occur near schools. The head of the board and agency, currently Benton McDonough, is sometimes called the “night mayor.”

Prior to the enterprise solution, his department didn’t have tools to visualize where these activities were occurring in relation to one another. Using the ArcGIS Enterprise Portal, Metro’s GIS team configured maps and apps that gave the Beer Board the ability to filter results based on such variables as date range, violation types and prior checks from its staff, and to visualize patterns and trends by specific locations. With these new insights, the Beer Board could more proactively assign resources to areas with the biggest need.

The board’s staff found the use of portal to be so beneficial to their operations that they proactively took the capability one step further and embedded select portal maps into an internal SharePoint site, putting the information directly into their hands through an application they were already using daily.

Supporting Community Engagement

An enterprise solution should also facilitate resident participation and understanding. Nashville utilizes the GIS software as a collaboration platform, which means that city workers and residents alike can provide feedback and observations for a broad array of services.

Last year, for example, Metro GIS staff configured a solution for local students to create a database and map of tree locations, sizes and species located on Metro property. It complements Metro’s Urban Tree Canopy Assessment, which was compiled with the use of lidar. Additionally, the Davidson County Digital Inclusion Map is a GIS tool developed to connect residents with community organizations with the aim of ensuring access to beneficial technology.
Nashville heat map
A GIS-based StoryMap created to help educate Nashville residents about the impact of extreme heat. (

Included in these community engagement efforts was a summer 2022 heat mapping campaign in which local experts, nonprofits and researchers teamed with community scientists to measure temperatures and humidity across Nashville. An Esri StoryMap was created to help educate residents about the impact of extreme heat, and the data collected informs mitigation efforts by city public health and environmental officials, nonprofits, planners, foresters and researchers.

These uses demonstrate the need for shared, visualized data to support the context and communication necessary to create an iterative loop of community engagement that encompasses multiple government agencies. This application of an enterprise system is especially crucial in the realm of environment and health, as issues like extreme heat continue to worsen and touch across agencies from public health to homelessness and housing services to parks and recreation.

Involving the public in these Metro initiatives demonstrates an additional attribute of well-functioning enterprise software: When comprehensively utilized both inside and outside city hall, it helps the local government understand systems from an enterprise perspective. As it works toward optimizing transportation and management of curbs and sidewalks, for example, Metro utilizes its enterprise GIS solutions to bring together agency and rider information on roads, traffic, transit, asset utilization and maintenance, complaints, and other data. Using another StoryMap developed by GIS staff, Metro recently unveiled Choose How You Move, which explores planned transportation improvements.

Whether it relates to heat intervention and public health or to the mayor’s transportation priorities, effectively deploying an enterprise solution sets all agencies up to best serve the community. Nashville’s rapid growth puts pressure on operating agencies, and they need to use technology more comprehensively and effectively to increase productivity, which includes tracking and cataloging community ideas. Supportive executive leadership, an IT agency that listens, trains and services its operating agencies, and a data architecture that pulls it all together with the views of residents promise continuous improvement.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
From Our Partners