D4GX 2016: How Data Can Improve our Cities and Better Residents’ Lives

Just over a year ago, the newly elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi – a city burdened with infrastructure problems and a struggling economy – realized he needed better information before he could take action. So the city joined What Works Cities (WWC), an initiative launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in April 2015 to help 100 mid-sized American cities enhance their use of data to drive local decision-making and improve services for residents.

As one of the first eight cities to be admitted to the program, Jackson leaders were eager to work with WWC to reorient the city’s government culture toward data-driven decision-making and to do more with limited resources. The Mayor and his staff established a performance management program (“JackStat”) to identify and track the city’s progress on key priorities, signed an open data policy and established an open data portal. These steps enabled managers to share information across agencies and make decisions based on data that showed what was working and what wasn’t.

As a result, Jackson has reduced its backlog of unanswered 311 calls by 60 percent by identifying duplicate addresses, saving weeks of staff time. The streamlining also reduced the city’s need for layoffs and sped up the onboarding of new employees from 45 days to just 20.

Creating a data-friendly culture is step one

As of September 2016, WWC currently partners with 39 cities in 25 states throughout the United States, with new cities joining all the time. Jackson’s work is illustrative of what we’re seeing across the country – that many cities want to use data and evidence, but government leaders need support to do so. Cities often lack the policies, systems, organizational culture and know-how to turn positive intention into results.

Helping to bridge that gap, the technical assistance WWC offers to cities empowers staff with the skills and expertise necessary to embed the use of data and evidence effectively in everyday work. When city leaders uphold the four-part WWC Standard – to commit, measure, take stock and act based on evidence of impact – they are provided with a roadmap for moving from the desire to use data- and evidence-based decision-making to improve residents’ lives to actually seeing results.

On September 25, as part of Bloomberg’s upcoming Data for Good Exchange, we will present our paper, “Moving the Needle: What Works Cities and the Use of Data and Evidence,” in which we discuss several factors of success we found in our analysis of data from 67 cities based on their use of data and evidence.

We found that a city excelling in one element of the WWC Standard is significantly more likely to excel in another, and that a city’s stated commitment to using data is the strongest predictor of overall performance. Additionally, we found that strong practice in almost any one specific technical area of using data to inform decisions is an indicator of strong practices in other areas.

Cities are already seeing improvement

As we enter the second year of the initiative, WWC is buoyed to see many positive developments coming from our partner cities.

  • Kansas City, Missouri is now using residents’ feedback to update citywide and departmental goals, ensuring city government is driven by community needs.
  • Mesa, Arizona created an index that combines data on code violations, crime rates, graffiti and vacant properties to identify the city’s most blighted areas. Mesa is now redirecting significant funding to those most vulnerable areas and tracking the reduction in blight.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana implemented randomized control trials that resulted in 200 low-income residents scheduling a free doctor’s appointment.
  • Saint Paul, Minnesota identified four city agencies to pilot performance management programs. Among them, Saint Paul’s library department increased the participation of girls enrolled in a teen program after data analysis uncovered gender disparities in attendance rates.
  • Seattle, Washington is improving its contracting practices around homelessness by defining performance goals for social service providers for the first time, setting up data systems to measure outcomes, and using performance data to inform decisions about future investments.

We are very encouraged by the strides cities are making in improving the lives of their residents by focusing on results. We look forward to highlighting lessons learned from cities that have made that goal their own as we share our findings at the Data for Good Exchange – and as we continue to expand and deepen our work.

This post was written by Simone Brody, Executive Director of What Works Cities.