In the 21st century, data-driven decision-making is a mantra among city leaders, who increasingly wish to harness the capacity of data science to measure every aspect of a city — from well-established police evaluation tools like CompStat to more recent concepts like tracking greenhouse gas emissions by benchmarking buildings’ energy usage. But how can a mid-sized city with limited resources tap into the data-driven revolution to drive municipal policy?
Tulsa, Oklahoma found a way with its Urban Data Pioneers program, a winner of the 2018 Cities of Service Engaged Cities Award.
Tulsa, like most cities, had a large amount of data on hand, including crime statistics, utility information, and traffic statistics. Mayor Bynum, elected in June 2016, wanted to use this data to achieve his goals, including reducing crime and growing the city. But a limited city budget meant resources to accomplish that goal were not readily available.
The mayor proposed a working group called Urban Data Pioneers, with the goal of creating teams to learn data analysis techniques together and provide actionable information that would enable the mayor and city leaders to make better policy decisions.
For the program’s initial launch, Mayor Bynum sent an email invitation to everyone in city hall to join with an expectation that a dozen or so employees would show up to the first meeting. But that initial gathering elicited 60 attendees, with 120 ultimately engaged in the effort.
James Wagner, chief of Performance Strategy and Innovation, manages the Urban Data Pioneers program from within a unique city hall department, newly created by Mayor Bynum, with a mission of harnessing data for civic innovation.
Each cohort kicks off with a planning meeting in which Wagner’s office brings a series of predetermined topics, based largely on the mayor’s agenda, that deserve more data-driven scrutiny. Volunteers gravitate to the project that most interests them. Wagner’s office ensures that each team has a data analyst, subject matter expert, and someone skilled in data visualization.
Each team then spends 10 weeks gathering and mapping data. Volunteers generally spend three to four hours per week — likely more if they are city employees — often meeting early in the morning or during lunch. City staff coordinate their participation with their direct supervisors, which is facilitated by the mayor’s support for the program. They may meet in person, but just as often the work happens remotely via collaborative digital platforms like Slack.
“Urban Data Pioneers was a great way to pull these people together with completely different levels of expertise,” said Penny Macias, a project manager in the Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation.
The final product is a slide deck with an emphasis on visual analytics like GIS maps that can illustrate the data analysis. These are presented at a showcase attended by about 50 city employees, including most department directors. Wagner’s department routes presentations on priority topics to the city council and the mayor; all presentations are also available on the program’s website.
Now in its fourth cohort, teams have examined a variety of issues including traffic crashes, land-use efficiency, and blight, and also embarked on more sophisticated projects like building a predictive model for neighborhood stability. There are about 50 active members at any given time, roughly split between two-thirds city employees and one-third private citizens or nonprofit representatives.
One city service, maintaining streets, has already seen a change in policy direction due to the Urban Data Pioneers’ efforts. Previously, Tulsa selected which street projects to prioritize based on a computer model calculating road conditions against available funds. A team on the first cohort conducted a more detailed analysis.
“The Urban Data Pioneers developed a model whereby we could weight different factors more heavily in deciding which overall street projects to pick,” Mayor Bynum said. Factors include issues like traffic crashes, sidewalk gaps, ADA accessibility, bicycle infrastructure, and storm sewer overflow. “Ninety-plus percent of the capital program we do next year will be street work, and that is going to be done utilizing the tool that the Urban Data Pioneers developed.”
To see another example of Urban Data Pioneers’ work in action, watch this video on one group’s current work on Tulsa’s eviction crisis:
Like the best-sustained citizen engagement efforts, mayoral leadership is critical to the success of Urban Data Pioneers. It started with Mayor Bynum, who inspired city employees and members of the general public. They volunteered with a clear indication that their efforts would be considered by the highest level of city government, inform policy, and have an impact on their city.
Through the recognition that Tulsa has received from winning the Cities of Service Engaged Cities Award, the city has been able to create additional citizen engagement programs and share the Urban Data Pioneers program with others. “It’s one thing when you’re in a community working on something as hard as these folks have, to think, ‘Well, maybe we’re making a difference locally,’ and to find that rewarding,” said Mayor Bynum. “But to get the kind of recognition that we receive from Cities of Service, to know that we’re helping inspire other cities around the world with the work—these are people that two years ago were all closeted away, doing data analysis in cubicles around the city, and now they’re helping set a trend for other cities around the world.”
Cities of Service is now accepting applications for its second annual Engaged Cities Award. Open to cities in the Americas and Europe with populations of 30,000+, applications are due on January 18, 2019. To learn more and apply, visit EngagedCitiesAward.org.
Myung J. Lee is Executive Director of Cities of Service, a nonprofit that helps mayors build stronger cities by changing the way local government and citizens work together. More than 250 coalition cities in the Americas and Europe tap into the knowledge, creativity and service of citizens to solve public problems.