The Movement to Transform Data Into Action in US Cities

By Michele Jolin and Michael Nutter

Imagine if Mayors and city leaders across the country were able to routinely use data and evidence to identify a challenge and devise a clear, concrete path to address it — to truly figure out “what works.”

What if using data and evidence could not only change lives but save them?

Philadelphia did it. During Michael Nutter’s tenure as Mayor of Philadelphia from 2008–2016, the city partnered with Temple University and analyzed the City’s crime data by location, perpetrator, and type of crime. By using data, the city determined that 65% of homicides were committed in just 9 of 23 police districts. As a result, the city deployed police officers to the most dangerous areas and during the last three years of his tenure, homicides were at the lowest levels since 1967. Over eight years, the city reduced homicides by 30% and better directed its resources to the neighborhoods where crimes were most likely to be committed. From crime reduction to eliminating blighted properties, cities across the country are using data to improve services, meaningfully engage residents, and make better decisions.

This is why we are committed partners of What Works Cities, the Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative which launched one year ago to help 100 mid-sized American cities use data and evidence to address their most pressing challenges, improve residents’ lives, and make government work better.

Our momentum is building and the movement is real. Today, more than 150 leading Mayors and city officials are gathering in New York City for the first-ever What Works Cities Summit: Transforming Data Into Action. These leaders come from all types of cities; from coast-to-coast and the middle of America; cities with a thriving technology sector and cities with none at all.

Regardless of their starting point, the local leaders within City Halls have told us over the last year that their cities are awash in data, but they are in serious need of expert support to use that data to take action and get better results. What Works Cities is meeting this need. Our first cities to apply told us:

  • There is real demand for tools and support: In the one year since its launch, What Works Cities received applications from 139 cities in 41 states, nearly half of all eligible cities in the country.
  • Cities are clear about where they want to go, but they may not be taking the steps needed to get there: 64% of mid-sized cities that applied have launched systems that track progress toward key goals, but only 30% have a process in place for analyzing and following up on the information from those systems.
  • The commitment to use data is strong, but, so far, it has not systematically translated into action: 70% of mid-sized cities that applied indicated their commitment to using data and evidence to make decisions, but only 28% currently modify existing programs based on the results of evaluations.

Mayors and their teams are committed to this work and are validating the need to come together with their peers and learn from expert partners from across the world. In the last year alone, What Works cities have launched and enhanced 17 performance analytics systems that track and analyze progress; enacted 10 open data policies; and launched and expanded 10 open data portals. And the initial results are starting to come in.

Jackson, Mississippi, one of the first eight What Works cities, passed the state’s first open data policy, recently launched an open data portal and a performance analytics program, and has saved more than $600,000 by using data to design a better process to reduce the number of blighted buildings.

New Orleans, another of the first cities selected to be part of What Works Cities, worked with the Behavioral Insights Team, one of the five What Works Cities expert partners, to convince more citizens to get free medical check-ups.

The Mayors and city leaders gathering at today’s What Works Cities Summit are the innovators in the growing movement to use data and evidence to get results. They will provide important and powerful examples, demonstrating that when Mayors have better information and act on that information, cities can be the most important force in driving positive change in our country.

Over the next two years, What Works Cities will be accelerating a movement of city leaders and communities that work together to identify and solve their cities’ most pressing challenges, using evidence of what works. We’ll support this movement in the following ways:

First: What Works Cities will increase from our current 27 What Works cities — representing 11.3 million Americans, with annual municipal budgets exceeding a combined $32.1 billion — to partnering with 100 mid-sized cities in total.

Second: Mayors learn from other Mayors. What Works Cities is creating a network and platform for Mayors and other city leaders to learn from each other, share mistakes and successes, and advance progress in their own cities.

Third: What Works Cities will work with Mayors to engage their residents and ensure that city governments are using evidence and data in ways that will make a difference in people’s lives. It is a moral imperative that communities in need are better served, city problems are addressed more quickly, and taxpayer dollars are more effectively spent. Our best city leaders know that citizen leadership and ownership of these solutions will be vital to their success and sustainability.

It will take time. Any shift from a status quo is not easy. But, using data and evidence will help city leaders make smarter, more effective decisions and improve lives for city residents. What Works Cities is harnessing the energy and commitment of the best city leaders around the country toward the common goal of improving city life. Today, the What Works Cities Summit celebrates the progress to date and accelerates the drive toward Mayors and city leaders acting on data and evidence to address cities’ biggest challenges.


Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

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