The Strickland Administration takes firm and important steps today in moving Memphis up in the rankings of “data-smart cities” with the additions of a new data website featuring a performance dashboard – data.memphistn.gov – and a new City of Memphis open data policy.
These milestones may not grab media headlines, but they should, because they ultimately have the power to transform decision-making and the relationship between the public and City Hall. They also now become the scaffolding on which additional data, information, and predictive analytics can be built.
Even better, they are precursors to another major improvement coming within weeks – a new, reinvented City of Memphis website – that ushers in a new chapter for city government.
“First, the performance dashboard provides citizens with access to the same performance data that is used by the mayor and directors,” said Craig Hodge, interim director of the Office of Performance Management. “The site also allows residents to view and download the aggregate data that make up the performance metrics and manipulate it. More data sets will be added in the future with incident level details.”
In other words, big data promises value that cities are just now beginning to imagine, but suffice it to say that data-based decisions can reduce crime, lessen traffic congestion, improve efficiency, enhance quality of life, all by helping citizens and their government determine how to spend money in ways with the highest possible return on investment. In addition, performance data make it possible for City of Memphis to generate new insights and define new strategies, and most of all, the public can engage in the discussion and following the impacts.
Over the years, governments have been notorious for launching programs with great fanfare and promise but then there was not a time when the programs are evaluated to see if they actually achieved their goals, if they were smart investments, and if they made a difference.
Spotlighting The Good And The Bad
From the beginning of his term, Mayor Jim Strickland pledged that transparency would be a hallmark of his administration. Many people took the comments with a grain of salt. After all, we’ve been hearing similar comments from previous occupants of the mayor’s office for years.
This time, however, the statements weren’t merely the expected political rhetoric, because Mr. Strickland developed an actual plan to translate the words into action. We saw evidence early with the documents posted on the city’s website by the communications office from the administration’s regular “Performance Dashboard Review.” This more than 50-page PDF has been packed with goals, data, and status updates about city government’s performance in public safety, neighborhoods, youth, jobs, and good government. The review has also been a regular part of the mayor’s weekly emails to the public.
“What has impressed me is that he (Mayor Strickland) doesn’t just release data when things are going well, but he released data when 9-1-1 performance was low. It is not hand-selected data but shows the good and the not so good,” said Mr. Hodge. His Performance Management Office works with management to develop the most pertinent data points, but it also develops new metrics in connection with special cross-functional teams working on issues like the one currently analyzing 3-1-1.
“In early 2016, we knew data.memphistn.gov would eventually launch, but that it would be awhile,” said Kyle Veazey, communications guru for the mayor’s office. “The mayor came to me one day and said he wanted to get the data out ASAP and not just wait on a new site, so that’s what prompted us to start posting the PDF of the PowerPoint presentation from that meeting.
“Measuring performance, publicizing that performance, and holding the City accountable was something the mayor ran on in 2015, so this is just another step toward continuing to fulfill that campaign promise. The mayor is a big believer not just in being transparent with the data, but using the data to hold ourselves accountable.”
To that end, Mayor Strickland has a meeting on the last Wednesday of every month when he reviews dozens of data slides with every city division director, asks questions, and exhorts progress. “Meeting with the mayor is motivation and now that the public can watch improvement, it builds trust and allows the public to hold government accountable and that is added motivation,” said Hodge.
Finally, A Trend Line
Best of all, the Performance Dashboard Review provides context. In past years, it’s been hard for us wonky types to construct a trend line with spotty city data that often required an online treasure hunt to find pertinent information on the city website (if it was there at all) or to hope a city official would respond to a request for information. The Performance Dashboard does not simply provide monthly measurements but plots them on a trend line, making it easy to judge the performance of city government over time.
It’s a primary benefit for the public, but there are others, according to Mr. Veazey. “For one, we – and I’m speaking as a citizen myself – get more knowledge with which to hold government accountable, the very core of the citizen-City Hall relationship. We can get an unprecedented insight into how government does its job. We get to learn more about where our tax dollars go. We get to see information that helps us make better decisions about what to advocate for and how to do it.
“But it’s mainly the accountability. This is government, standing in front of the citizen, saying this is who we are, warts and all, and you deserve to know it because you’re a taxpayer. Simple as that.”
Memphis As A Smart City
The term, smart cities, is ubiquitous these days (and unfortunately, we copyrighted the name only for communications) but the idea is a complicated one. It means different things to different people, but every definition has a core element – the use of technology and data to address complex issues.
That’s why the data website matters. It gets Memphis firmly into the smart city movement. To accelerate it in the future, Memphis is one of the 100 cities selected by Bloomberg Philanthropies for its What Works Cities program that articulates the aspirations and sets out the foundations for effective data use. So far, What Works Cities has provided certification for nine cities that met its criteria, and with the data website, Memphis begins a journey in that direction.
“We certainly have more work ahead of us and want to hear from the public about what more we can share, but I also don’t know of another city in the country that publishes as much raw data about our performance as Memphis,” said Mr. Veazey, deputy communications director. “For example, when we were looking around to see how other peer cities performed in answering 9-1-1 calls, the data was so scarce that we’re only really able to make an educated guess about where we stand. And we don’t just stash it somewhere and hope no one looks. The mayor has been very active in sharing interesting data points on his social media feeds, for instance.”
It is in establishing an open data policy (more on that later), inventorying data being collected, developing a strategy for opening city data, asking for feedback from residents, and learning from other cities that the Strickland Administration is acting on the single biggest challenge facing city governments and cities like ours – changing the culture – and to do it by valuing open data and using it within a performance management process to evaluate city services.
Opening Up The Data
In conjunction with the launch of the new website, Mayor Strickland today issued an executive order that sets out city government’s first open data policy which creates a data governance committee that will lead city government’s open data program.
Craig Hodge, interim director of the Office of Performance Management, said: “The data governance committee (whose members will be both city employees and citizens) will assist in standardizing data practices across the city, gathering public feedback to prioritize data sets, and preparing data sets for release. Thus, the open data program will enable the city to share even more data with the public.
“In short, the performance dashboard gives the public more insight into a program that already exists and the executive order is actually creating a new program. The two (dashboard and open data program) are not the same thing but definitely go hand-in-hand.”
Working with Memphians, there is the opportunity for citizens to transform the data into memorable stories. For example, Mayor Strickland is rightly proud of the progress made in the response times of the 9-1-1 system that resulted from data analytics. The thing is that in the end 9-1-1- is not about a phone system, but about saving lives.
In other words, data are fundamental building blocks and the public needs to take co-ownership so it can translate numbers into how lives are changed – if not saved – because of real-time analytics. The data website is providing a new platform for policymakers but it is up to Memphians to use the data to stimulate conversations and create a narrative about city services.
There is no argument that data unlocks hidden potential for government services, and we are already seeing the beginnings of citizens as data collectors, using smart phones and social media to act as extensions of city government. It is a rich frontier for cities like ours.
It’s Just Beginning
Cities are just beginning to scratch the surface in how to use data, according to Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis and director of the Innovation in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. “In terms of city governments, we are at one of the most consequential periods in the last century,” he said.
Technology will inevitably and profoundly change society, and Goldsmith is right: it is just beginning. There will be advanced analytics tools, inexpensive sensors, widespread use of mobile devices, cloud computing growth to make storage of information more affordable, and much, much more, in the years to come. We cannot fully imagine that future today, but the key in reacting and anticipating problems is getting into the smart city movement leveraging the power of open data to improve city services.
Memphis got into the game with its performance management office, but it amplifies it today with the launch of the new data website that puts information at our fingertips that we can manipulate to test our own opinions, to hold government accountable, and to open up a decision-making process that welcomes in citizens as full partners in good governance.
After all, these data are not the property of city government. They are in truth the property of Memphians. Mayor Strickland set open and good government as a priority for his administration, and with the data website, he lived up to his pledge.
The Strickland Administration is now providing open data that can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone. It is now up to the rest of us to use the data to shape a new brand of citizenship in which Memphian engage directly with City Hall about operations, programs, and policies.
It’s hard to think of anything with more potential to create the accountable and effective government that is sought both inside and outside of City Hall.
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