How One Rust Belt City Is Revitalizing its Neighborhoods through Data

By Andel Koester

From her former role leading the IBM Smart Cities Challenge to her current role as an Associate Director at What Works Cities, Andel Koester has watched the City of Syracuse build a culture of data excellence.

Whether it’s big data or open data, data is the operative word today — and both the private sector and city governments have a lot to learn from each other. Before coming to What Works Cities, I managed the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, a signature IBM philanthropic initiative that deploys top company talent on pro bono consulting grants to city governments around the world. Six years ago, the City of Syracuse, New York, asked IBM to develop a model that would help it predict and prevent residential property vacancies and blight. Like many Rust Belt cities, Syracuse has seen jobs and people move away from its city center, leaving vacant properties behind. This decline negatively impacts the communities and businesses that remain, and imposes code, fire, maintenance and other direct costs on the city.

(Right) Mayor Stephanie Miner with a family outside the new home they purchased through the Greater Syracuse Land Bank. Photo Credit: Myriad Media/IBM.

But before we could even crunch the data, our Smarter Cities Challenge team had to track it down — sometimes literally walking a USB stick back and forth across the street from one agency or nonprofit to another, just to begin connecting the dots. As a result of this work the City was able to launch the Greater Syracuse Land Bank, one of the first land banks in New York State, with the mission of targeting neighborhoods for reinvestment and growth. The predictive model the IBM team developed helped the City understand what was possible with data: how connecting data across stakeholders and silos could make a meaningful difference for local families and businesses.

Mayor Miner announces the launch of DataCuse, the City of Syracuse’s new open data portal. Photo Credit: @MayorMinerSYR.

Last week, with the help of our team at What Works Cities, the City launched DataCuse, an open data portal that makes data on everything from vacant homes to lead paint risks to water main breaks available to anyone who needs it. Crucially, the City spent months working with local organizations like the Community Foundation to ensure that the data in the portal will be useful to nonprofits as they, too, target neighborhoods and communities for help. In doing so, Mayor Stephanie Miner and her team were able to expand the vision of the IBM team to empower not only city staff, but also local organizations, businesses, and residents to use data to inform how they invest in their communities.

The City of Syracuse has shown that data is a powerful tool for cities and communities of any size or sector. Bravo to Mayor Miner and her visionary, committed team.

Andel Koester is an Associate Director at What Works Cities. She previously led the Smarter Cities Challenge, an IBM philanthropic initiative.