Data Takes Center Stage in Long Beach’s Pandemic Push to Help Small Businesses

2021 Certification Level: Silver

By Emily Ferris

COVID-19-related restrictions hit local businesses hard in Long Beach, California, as they did across the country. Along with uncertainty and confusion related to evolving public health orders, many business owners grappled with a simple existential question: How will my business survive?

The City of Long Beach’s Economic Development Department stepped up to help, launching a call center to help business owners navigate health orders and access financial resources such as grants and loans. But the department’s team quickly realized this approach didn’t go far enough. Demand for relief was very high, but staff knew from tracking callers that many business owners were not accessing available services.

With government buildings closed due to the pandemic, the need for better outreach methods to help businesses survive was clear and urgent. So the City pivoted to a more targeted data-driven approach. In November 2020, the department launched the Long Beach BizCare Program, which allowed City staff to more directly engage local businesses in high-need areas. BizCare created outdoor pop-up sites offering free one-on-one in-person services to small business owners, helping them complete business relief grant applications and learn about other available resources.

A group of “community ambassadors” who supported the City’s COVID-19 health outreach efforts attend a meeting. Image courtesy of the City of Long Beach.

This new strategy required close collaboration across departments so that pop-ups could be located in areas of high-need. “The economic development team is small — the pandemic only heightened the importance of working with other departments,” says Adelita Lopez, the City’s economic development project manager. She managed the BizCare program. “I served in the military, and the way staff came together to support the outreach effort felt like a military deployment. Everybody was moving at rapid speeds to assist business owners.”

A first step was to understand which communities in Long Beach were most impacted by COVID-19 and least likely to have accessed relief resources. The City’s geographic information system (GIS) analysts worked with the BizCare team who provided layers of data detailing neighborhoods’ average income levels and engagement with City resources. To further prioritize outreach to high-need businesses, the BizCare team leveraged business license datasets to identify which businesses were open.

“Designing and rolling out the BizCare program was a crash course in how the right data is critical for designing a new service in a time of crisis,” says Ryan Kurtzman, Smart Cities Program Manager at the City of Long Beach.

Building Trust, One Conversation at a Time

Many of the business owners visiting BizCare pop-ups had never previously interacted with the City of Long Beach or accessed government services. Building trust was a huge part of the outreach effort, especially since many grant applications require personal information such as Social Security numbers.

To build trust, the BizCare team chose to staff pop-up sites with people who lived in, or were originally from, priority outreach neighborhoods. It partnered with the City’s workforce innovation network Pacific Gateway to hire young people. With multilingual translation services available at each site, they helped business owners understand relief options and complete grant applications.

“Having team members with personal connections to the community was really helpful in building trust,” Lopez says. “For a lot of our staff, we were talking about their neighbor’s store or their uncle’s friend’s restaurant.”

A BizCare street outreach team visits a local business. Image courtesy of the City of Long Beach.

The pop-up sites demonstrated the City’s commitment to careful stakeholder engagement. Staff in the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department as well as the Library Department helped BizCare identify safe spots for tents, with access to bathrooms and electrical outlets. With personal protective equipment (PPE) and laptops, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, printers, and scanners borrowed from the City’s Technology and Innovation Department, BizCare staff helped business owners without their own computer or internet connection take significant steps toward protecting their business.

A basic goal of BizCare was to dynamically align pop-up locations to areas of high-need as the pandemic wore on. To that end, the team set up a data collection system to track who visited a BizCare site, applied for relief, and successfully received funds. They fed data back into GIS maps in real-time, and regularly reviewed them to adapt how the City was meeting communities’ needs.

As it happened, the BizCare team realized there were significant pockets of communities where businesses were not accessing available relief services. So it innovated again, developing a complementary street outreach team to go door-to-door in these areas. “Our goal was to offer business owners seamless support resources, between the call center, pop-ups, and the street team,” Lopez says.

One data point suggests the BizCare program succeeded in building trust in high-need areas. Eighty percent of pop-up attendees said they discovered BizCare through word of mouth. Maria Zepeda of Lili’s Store and Long Beach Snacks was one of the first business owners who worked with BizCare. It was her first time applying for any type of city aid. She received a commercial rental assistance grant of $4,000 and has since helped several other business owners on her block connect with BizCare.

The program’s targeted stakeholder engagement efforts have produced impressive results. As of December 2021, BizCare’s pop-ups have supported 795 business owners, who have collectively received $760,750 in grant-based relief funds. The street outreach team has engaged with 1,048 businesses, who have accessed over $100,000 in funds. The Call Center team has answered 6,361 calls to date. The Community Based Organizations Partnerships team has connected with 27 non-profit organizations to partner and reach some of the hardest-to-reach communities. Access to grant funding for business owners who don’t speak English increased more than 40% since BizCare launched.

Strong Foundation Going Into the Crisis

BizCare’s success is a reflection of Long Beach’s investments in foundational open data and stakeholder engagement practices. Current data efforts kicked off in 2016 with the City’s launch of an open data portal and the development of a data governance structure to provide training and promote data-driven decision-making. During its creation in 2017, the City’s Economic Development Department developed a blueprint for inclusive economic growth informed by deep community engagement, including community listening sessions and interviews with community-based organizations.

One of Long Beach’s community ambassadors. Image courtesy of the City of Long Beach.

All this work laid the groundwork for BizCare, which launched within the context of a deepening data-driven culture of innovation. “It’s been incredibly helpful that we have City staff invested in measuring what good governance looks like,” Kurtzman says. “The technical assistance we’ve received via What Works Cities as well as the Certification process itself have been really foundational for our COVID response and recovery efforts.”

Through the BizCare program, the City continues to engage with Long Beach business owners and use data to understand where support services might be the most impactful. Many of the data-driven outreach strategies honed by BizCare will be considered best practices for future COVID-19-related grant distribution programs, as well as deployment of Long Beach Recovery Act funds.

“I am proud of our efforts to use data to guide decision-making and improve community outcomes during the pandemic,” says Lea Eriksen, Long Beach’s director of technology and innovation/CIO. “Cities need to design services with a digital equity lens to meet people where they are. Programs like BizCare showcase our commitment to building a data-informed culture, and that’s something we’ll be investing in for years to come.”

Emily Ferris is Senior Manager, Certification for What Works Cities at Results for America.

As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Long Beach has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities.

Long Beach is one of 33 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.

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What Works Cities Certification is the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Learn more: http://bloombg.org/2o72SzG.

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