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Cities can do much more with big data, study finds

Friday, March 31, 2017

LAWRENCE — A few years ago, city staff in Kansas City, Missouri, noticed it was taking city departments 186 days to address 95 percent of its reported property code violations.

This would be anything from garbage strewn across front yards to overgrown grass and other potential hazards, said Eric Roche, the city's chief data officer. Staff members began to regularly analyze complaints that came into its 311 phone line and also quarterly survey data.

"Once we got more into the data, we saw quite a few outliers. The department was able to really see this is a serious issue and we can improve this," said Roche, who earned his master's degree in public administration from the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs & Administration. "The department did all of this and strategized around it."

Within a couple of years, the city had flipped the script to handling 95 percent of all reported code violations within a week.

"That's the power of data exposing issues and finding where the opportunities are in your current organization," Roche said.

For Roche and fellow KU MPA alumnus Bo McCall, a performance analyst with Kansas City, finding ways to incorporate big data into the city's governance, management and daily operations has become a critical aspect of their jobs. In recent years, the city has sought to integrate various types of data it collects.

Big data refers to the use of a massive amount of data to conduct analyses so that the data patterns and relationships can be used for classification, clustering, detection of anomalies, prediction and other means of decision making.

Both McCall and Roche said they are thankful their time in KU's program helped prepare them for this avenue of problem-solving and strategy. U.S. News & World Report this year again ranked KU's MPA program as No. 1 in the nation.

McCall and Alfred Tat-Kei Ho, professor in the public affairs & administration school, recently completed "Ten Actions to Implement Big Data Initiatives: A Study of 65 Cities" for the IBM Center for The Business of Government. They surveyed how the 30 largest U.S. cities and a sample of 35 others ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 people were handling data initiatives.

They mostly found that cities have not fully taken advantage of the larger vision and possibilities of big data as part of a broader "smart city" movement.

"Big data should not just be about data and gadgets," Ho said. "Big data should be used to serve some policy purpose, enhance the quality of life and build smart communities with other sectors. It is not just about technologies and tools only. We need to think about governance issues. We need to think about collaboration between sectors and citizens."

As the technology has advanced to integrate so many different types of data sets, city leadership's thinking largely has not caught up, Ho said.

McCall and Ho made 10 recommendations, including that city leaders think about a "smart city system" and not only using data because it can allow for breaking down of silos between city departments that might have different core functions and even other local governments or state and federal officials.

Two other key recommendations involve encouraging a culture of bottom-up innovation from employees who are working at the ground level of the organization and involving the public in data governance. Finding a way to examine city performance data in light of public surveys, for example, provides key input on the public's perspective and perception of how effective and efficient the city is working, the researchers said.

The survey is important as well for universities who will be training future public management staff members and leaders, Ho said, because big data as a trend will only continue to be a vital function of city governance in the future.

McCall said he was grateful as a KU graduate student to experience researching such a developing area in the field.

"Across the board this makes the case for collaboration among governments, universities, nonprofit groups, statisticians and programmers," he said. "This absolutely prepared me to go into this job in Kansas City."

Roche said the city has also sought to use data as a way to foster more public dialogue about issues. It also analyzed its 311 complaint data as well as survey information to focus on more quickly demolishing abandoned structures that were creating safety issues for a variety of reasons, for example. City staff also posts data results on the city's open data portal and has created a blog to provide information about the data as well.

He said the 65-city survey is interesting because much of the largest cities in the nation do appear to be ahead. It will be important for midsize cities to seek to advance as well, he said.

"We have to figure out how to do what they're doing," Roche said, "with fewer staff, fewer resources and fewer specialists." 

Photo: The city of Kansas City, Missouri, has used “big data” analysis in recent years to address its response to neighborhood and property code violations through its Neighborhood Revitalization Program such as abandoned buildings and houses deemed to be dangerous. City leaders used data to determine which buildings could be demolished and what others would be candidates for rehabilitation and other types of processing. University of Kansas School of Public Affairs & Administration researchers have studied 65 of the nation’s largest cities and suggested ways city leaders can incorporate big data into more effective city services and governance. Credit: The city of Kansas City, Missouri.



Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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