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D4GX: Why Cities Should Embrace Big Data

April 21, 2016

D4GX SF panelists

The future of municipal government may lie in a database. At Bloomberg’s recent Data for Good Exchange, prominent data scientists and policymakers gathered at Bloomberg’s west coast tech hub to discuss how cities can improve the way they operate by sharing trapped data with citizens.

Moderated by Bloomberg News reporter Jack Clark, the conversation included Joy Bonaguro, the City of San Francisco’s Chief Data Officer, James Crawford, Orbital Insight CEO, Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, and Jan Erik Solem, Mapillary’s CEO.

While cities have to contend with limited budgets, old technology systems and uncooperative partners, the panelists cited Philadelphia as just one of many municipalities around the U.S that are starting to use technology to make local governments more efficient and effective.

Philadelphia city officials worked with Code for America to create an app that mapped the ride paths of cyclists while they were biking through the city. Cyclists started using the app, and it spread throughout the biking community.

“Suddenly you have a map of where people are biking in Philly, and they could hand that off to the planning authority to plot bike lanes according to existing bike traffic,” said Jennifer.

“There’s a lot of talk about how data can be useful,” she said. “It’s very hard to get anywhere with talk; it’s much better when you’re shown something you think might be useful.”

Joy Bonaguro, who spearheads San Francisco’s open data efforts, agreed that the key is sharing data in easily digestible and visually appealing formats.

“We always go back to what are people’s critical problems and we start probing those,” she said.

New Orleans faced a similar data problem grappling with more than 35,000 abandoned properties in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When the Chief Information Officer of the city asked his technology vendors what to do, they told him it would take millions of dollars and a few years to build a solution to the city’s data integration “blight fight” project.

Instead, New Orleans chose to build its own solution in partnership with local activists. Between inspectors with their own spreadsheets and city staff taking reports from citizens, administrators were able to combine 25 different datasets about houses that had been reported for blight, putting them into a pipeline for inspection and eventual demolition.

Seeing the potential, the city doubled down on its data bet, creating a public web application called BlightStatus. The app, which is open source and available on Github, made it easy to look up any city address and see a detailed history of a property, including blight reports, inspections, and scheduled demolitions. Code for America says the web app contributed to the city’s 30 percent overall reduction in blight in 2014 alone.

“Getting data out there in some format understandable by the people of New Orleans meant getting people inside government and people in the neighborhoods looking at the same data, and you can’t do that if the data is siloed,” Jennifer said.

When companies enable employees to access data, it can translate to better performance. Citizens can also help cities reach big important goals–but only if they’re informed.

The Data for Good Exchange initiative is part of a long tradition at Bloomberg of using data to solve problems at the core of society. The next Data for Good Exchange is taking place on September 25, 2016 in NYC.

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