5 lessons from the best data-driven cities

Bloomberg Cities
Apr 24 · 7 min read

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland had a question. He was at a 2018 meeting of mayors — where nine of his peers were on stage accepting recognition for their cities being the best at using data — when he snapped a photo, attached it to an email to his team, and asked, “What are these cities doing that we’re not?”

Soon after, Strickland and his team set their sights on getting Memphis recognized this year, and today, they will be. The city just received Certification through What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative that helps U.S. cities use data to deliver better results for residents. Achieving Certification signals that Memphis has aligned its practices and policies with a rigorous national standard for applying data and evidence to the work local governments do.

They’re not the only city to get the good news. Others earning Certification today for the first time include Arlington, Texas; Philadelphia; and Scottsdale, Ariz. In addition, three cities that achieved Certification last year — Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; and Washington, D.C. — are moving up a level from silver-level Certification to gold. Six other cities — Los Angeles (gold) and Boston, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle (all silver) — maintained last year’s Certification status. (No cities have yet achieved the highest level of Certification, platinum). Meanwhile, two cities — Bellevue, Wash., and Tulsa, Okla. — achieved Certification Honor Roll this year because they are up-and-coming leaders in data-driven governance and are on the path to Certification.

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What all these cities show, according to What Works Cities Executive Director Simone Brody, is that data excellence isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about what a city does with those numbers and how, with a heightened focus on data-driven management, they can improve the lives of their residents. “Whatever issues your city is struggling with, whether it’s filling potholes or addressing homelessness, the fastest and best way to get better outcomes is by using data,” she said.

Here are five lessons from this year’s newly certified cities.

1. A data-driven culture comes from the top.

When you see a city excelling at using data, you’ll almost always find something else: a mayor or city manager who takes it very seriously.

Not that city leaders at the highest levels have to be data nerds. But they do need to establish data-driven government as a core value in City Hall and communicate why that’s important to staff, residents, and other stakeholders. They also have to hire people with data chops to do the work — and to give them support in a role that, when done right, cuts across every agency in the organization.

Strickland is a good example of all of this in action. He campaigned on a pledge to use data to deliver better results for residents, and followed up on that by holding monthly meetings with department heads to assess performance data on everything from crime to library attendance. “Numbers spur competitiveness,” he said, “and they increase your focus on core issues.” [Read more here about the work in Memphis.]

Mayor Strickland promoted the city’s innovation director, Doug McGowen, to chief operating officer, and asked him to create a continuously updated data dashboard. That tool not only serves as the basis of those monthly performance meetings, but it also provides Strickland with news to share in a weekly email newsletter he sends to residents. “This may not seem sexy,” Strickland said, “but people want 311 and 911 calls answered, they want blight cleaned up, and they want potholes filled.”

2. Start with a real problem to solve.

All the talk these days of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence can make data work sound intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. The trick is to just get started on a project, one that addresses a real problem in the community. The learning comes from the doing.

Arlington is a good case in point. The sprawling city of 400,000, located halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, was once the largest U.S. city without a public transit system. Rather that tackle the gargantuan task of building a new system from scratch, the city tested a less-traditional approach: partnering with rideshare company Via to offer subsidized $3 flat-fee rides within a service area that covers about one-third of the city. It’s not a comprehensive solution, but it’s a start — and data is critical to the operation. Thanks in part to the city’s data-sharing agreement with Via, Arlington is able to get federal transit funding to support the service. [Read more here about the work in Arlington.]

What Arlington shows is that cities don’t have to start out thinking big when it comes to data. Often, it’s better to think small at first. Once you show that using data generates better outcomes, you can use that win to generate more support and invest further. That’s just what Arlington is doing — the city hopes to expand its partnership with Via to extend service to more areas of the city.

3. Data can improve equity.

The power of data to help cities address residents’ most critical concerns can be especially impactful when it comes to the most vulnerable residents. When cities get good at using data, it can show them who in the city they are serving well and who they aren’t. The numbers often paint pictures of long-suspected patterns that can, otherwise, be hard to prove: stark divides in neighborhoods or housing quality along lines in income and education, for example. The evidence is hard to ignore.

That’s what Tulsa found in its Crutchfield neighborhood, just northeast of downtown. Tulsa’s data showed that Crutchfield’s poverty rate was 37 percent — more than twice as high as the city as a whole — along with big disparities in health outcomes and housing vacancy. The city is responding by taking a pool of federal grant dollars that previously was spread across the city and dedicating them largely to revitalization efforts in Crutchfield.

Data is also key to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s push for a more equitable city. One focus of that agenda is hiring a more diverse workforce in City Hall, which the city’s employment data showed was not reflective of the community. The city has revamped its talent pipeline to connect youth, communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, and formerly incarcerated individuals to middle-skill positions that have been tough for city departments to fill. [Read more here about the work in Philadelphia.]

4. You can start preparing for tomorrow’s challenges today.

Even as city leaders focus on solving problems in their communities right now, they always need to keep an eye on the future. Companies expect local leaders to be preparing for future challenges, and investors demand it: For example, the credit-rating agency Moody’s has warned it will downgrade bonds of cities that don’t prepare for the impacts of climate change.

That’s a risk Scottsdale takes to heart. As a desert city, Scottsdale not only needs to make every drop of water count — the city also needs to count carefully every drop of water it needs. Each fall, the city’s Water Department must submit its water order for a whole year ahead. There’s little room for error. Buy too much, and the city pays for water nobody uses; buy too little, and it could trigger a water crisis.

Using predictive analytics, Scottsdale has refined its projections to the point that water managers pretty much nailed it in 2018: They were off by only 0.4 percent between planned and actual water use. An accurate water order saved the city money and also continued a more than 20-year streak of pumping less groundwater out of its aquifers than it put back in. That will only strengthen Scottsdale’s resilience as the city prepares for even hotter and drier days ahead. [Read more here about the work in Scottsdale.]

5. You’ve got to be in it to win it.

What Works Cities Certification is not just a recognition for leading cities. Most importantly, it’s also a program of support that meets cities where they are — whether they’re just getting started with data or already pretty advanced — and steadily raises their game.

The first step for any city is to complete a Certification assessment (it should take most cities about one hour to complete). Doing so allows cities to get a sort of data “check-up” — a customized report that allows cities to understand their strengths and weaknesses, size themselves up against other cities, and figure out where to improve. Completing an assessment also gains staff free access to a number of skills-building resources. These include 6- to 8-week courses on foundational data practices called Sprints, as well as courses in the What Works Cities Academy.

Perhaps most importantly, participation gains city leaders access to a community of peers who are all working to improve and supporting each other along the way by sharing ideas and inspiration. “We’ve seen cities that started at a score of literally zero jump in and make rapid progress,” Brody said. “Anybody can do this — and everyone should, in order to provide the best services possible to their residents.”

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