Can Data Save Our Cities?

Last year, a team from Hopkins began meeting with mayors across the country to help solve their most pressing urban issues. The results have been encouraging. The solution? Data.

Just before what passes for morning rush hour in downtown Jackson, Miss.—before people walk into the silver, post-modern Social Security Administration building or drop in to the Elite Restaurant for grits and biscuits—the streets are eerily quiet. A freight train creeps across elevated tracks. Rain spits down from heavy clouds, spotting the cracked terrazzo entryways on Capitol Street that announce the names of businesses that are no longer here: Halls Drug Store, Bourgeois Jeweler, the Bon-Ton Café. Across from the old King Edward Hotel, recently re-invented as a Hilton Garden Inn, a string of vacant buildings stand shoulder to shoulder, held together only by their walls. You can walk through an open screen door near the sign for the defunct Peoples Café, and from the tiled floor look up to see the sky.

A man who gives his name as Frank makes his way up Capitol Street to his job at the Mayflower Café, Jackson’s oldest operating restaurant. “They say it’s going to come back,” he says, gesturing to the city around him. “But it’s going slow.”

It’s hard to argue against the notion that, on this stretch of Capitol Street, progress in Jackson has stalled. But changes are afoot. In the last few months, there has been a reduction in crime. More and more vacant buildings have been demolished by the city. And in February 2016, Jackson’s charismatic young mayor, Tony Yarber, announced a plan to let Jackson property owners buy adjacent vacant lots for as little as $10.

What would surprise Frank (and many Jacksonians, to be sure) is that the genesis for much of this change can be traced to work being done in an unprepossessing, triple-wide trailer, tucked into a small lot next to the historic Greenhouse on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. Working behind the scenes with city mayors and their staffs, the new Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) is helping local governments, like the one in Jackson, solve their most pressing needs. By providing training in identifying and collecting data-based evidence, GovEx introduces cities to a new way to make decisions—one that will greatly improve the lives of their residents.

Harnessing information

Established in the spring of 2015, GovEx is part of the university’s 21st Century Cities Initiative, a cross-disciplinary research effort for urban study and change. The center draws heavily on expertise from the Krieger School, particularly the Department of Sociology, and is supported by a $9 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, former New York mayor (and Hopkins alum) Michael Bloomberg’s charitable organization, which employs data-driven approaches to global change in public health, arts and culture, the environment, education, and government innovation. GovEx grew out of that organization’s desire to try a different approach in funding government innovation programs based on the growing adoption by cities of data and analytics as a performance measurement tool. GovEx also partners with What Works Cities, a national philanthropic initiative launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015, to help 100 mid-sized American cities enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision-making, and engage residents.

Mayors understood they were owners of data, but didn’t really know how to apply it to things that were most important to them.” Beth Blauer, Executive Director, GovEx

Beth Blauer, Executive Director, GovEx

“There was this general operating hypothesis, confirmed with fieldwork research, that mayors understood they were owners of data, but didn’t really know how to apply it to things that were most important to them; that they didn’t really know how to make it an operational tool,” says Beth Blauer, GovEx’s executive director and a national expert in implementing government “stat” programs, including Maryland’s innovative performance management program, StateStat.

The GovEx team began the project by building a tool to gauge demand for the center’s services and cities’ readiness to participate in the program. In the first phase, they evaluated applications from over 100 cities vying for 40 initial working partnerships. (The final goal is to partner with 100 American cities, and there may be an international component in the future). They found that cities had great interest in building and refining their data collection practices and also had a wide range of knowledge about the subject. Some cities, like Kansas City, Mo., and Mesa, Ariz., had already established data collection practices that the city mayors and their teams wanted to refine. Other cities knew that they wanted to adopt these practices, but didn’t know how to begin.

After an initial meeting with mayors and their staffs, the GovEx team’s subsequent work over the next several months is tailored specifically to what a city’s needs are and where they want to focus their efforts. “All cities take different approaches,” explains Eric Reese, a senior implementation advisor.

In Denver, GovEx concentrated on employee training in collecting and using analytics. In St. Paul, the work focused on using data to track contracting processes for street construction projects. In New Orleans, GovEx helped the city find ways to encourage its citizens to take advantage of free health care services: By examining data around clinic visits, they discovered that patients were more likely to visit if they were told they had been selected for free care. In Louisville, GovEx brainstormed with the city’s Department of Planning and Design Services on how to better engage external stakeholders, including real estate developers, banks, lawyers, property owners, and other entities who would hold an interest in their data. In Jackson, GovEx and the mayor’s office built a data and analytics program from the ground up.

“The culture of data”

Many city divisions already collect data, particularly police and fire departments and 3-1-1 non-emergency center dispatches. The term “open data” refers to the raw material for analysis, and open data programs can contribute to many city goals, including increasing government transparency, sharing information to aid in decision-making, engaging a broader coalition of stakeholders, and increasing government accountability. While some cities, including Baltimore, New York, and Kansas City, have instituted “stat programs” to organize and analyze data, many cities are at a loss about how to use and count the data they have. This is where GovEx can step in to provide free resources and technical training to mayors and their staffs, creating and encouraging what Blauer calls “the culture of data” in cities.

This culture has led to increased communications between cities that are dealing with similar issues. Through their work with GovEx, Jackson and New Orleans have had in-depth discussions about blight. Tacoma and Denver have discussed how they are sharing statistics about (now legal) marijuana use in their respective cities.

The increased availability of large amounts of data from a number of cities around the country can also affect national policymaking, points out Andrew Nicklin, the center’s open data director, who previously led Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s NYC OpenData and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Open NY programs. “You hear, for example, presidential candidates saying that at the moment there’s not enough data around something like marijuana use to make a decision around legalization,” explains Nicklin. “So part of the engagement we do actually helps to draw out some of this stuff and allows data to be available for people to make smart decisions.”

“I think for every major policy issue we see going forward, people are going to be asking for data about it,” adds GovEx senior implementation advisor Rebecca Williams. “For everything that happens in cities, they are going to be asked, ‘What are the data to compare?’ And it’s not just city planners that care about it. It’s front page news.”

Using data for change

When Tony Yarber was elected as mayor of Jackson in April 2014, he was the city’s fourth mayor in a five-year period and, at 37, the youngest elected mayor of the city. Yarber, a former city councilor with a background in education, knew about the power of data and metrics from his previous work as a school principal and was adamant about the value of starting a city stat program. In his 2015 State of the City address, Yarber noted: “Our commitment to make city processes seamless and effective are paramount to us building a city system that is centered on data-driven decision making. If we are to fix the system in which we function, we must understand, adapt, and be willing to admit our flaws. Innovation will help us ensure that the growth and future development of our city is inevitable.”

Within a year of taking office, Yarber’s director of innovation and performance, Justin Bruce, made contact with GovEx, which chose the city as one of its 40 initial partnerships and worked with the mayor’s office to begin the process of building out a stat program. This was no small task, says Bruce. “We’re a southern, urban city where people say they make decisions because that’s what’s good for people, rather than using evidence,” explains Bruce. “We were moving decision making from an emotionally-centered place to decisions based on intellect and wisdom—which is culture change.”

After an initial meeting with members of the GovEx team in September 2015 followed by workshops and training sessions, the mayor’s office rolled out a new responsibility matrix for all nine of Jackson’s city departments. Designed to help department heads understand how to measure tasks and outcomes, data culled from the matrix have become the basis for the biweekly JackStat meetings, which have taken on a decidedly collaborative atmosphere. “Meetings no longer look like the mayor lecturing everybody,” says Bruce. “Now he sits and listens to reports and asks questions.”

Training staff to recognize and analyze data has brought about some remarkable on-the-ground results in Jackson, particularly in the area of urban blight (rodent infestation, toxic refuse, and the use of vacant buildings as drug dens are all consequences of blight). When the mayor’s team looked at 3-1-1’s large backlog of open cases of citizens’ reports of overgrown lots or abandoned buildings to be demolished, it realized that because the units that handled these cases were located in the city’s Planning Department, they had no legal recourse to the letters and citations they sent to property owners. This meant that the few cases that were resolved could take between 90 and 120 days to close. After examining the data, the mayor and his team moved the enforcement units into the police department, where written citations and tickets are legally binding. They also initiated a better tracking system for addresses and follow-ups. Within seven months, the demolition rate rose from two buildings to 75, and there was a 122 percent closure rate in overgrown lot reports.

“We would be remiss not to thank GovEx for putting back in place the need to think critically through problems,” says Bruce. “This was an improvement that cost the city nothing. It just cost us a little time for thinking and caused us to think a little outside of the box.”

Sheila Dugan, the GovEx senior implementation advisor who worked closely with Mayor Yarber and his staff, also sees Jackson as an extraordinary example of how data can effect changes in a city: “Jackson is struggling with the issue of blight that a lot of cities struggle with. Every city wants to make their economy vibrant. Every city wants solid education. Every city wants more jobs. What sets Jackson apart is the tenacity of its leadership and its commitment to change. Mayor Tony Yarber was able to put his neck out and make formidable changes. That sets him apart from other mayors.”

As one of the unexpected bonuses of the city’s work with GovEx, Bruce points to raised morale among the mayor’s department heads, who are proud of their results and excited to share them with the mayor and his constituents. And a sense of hope imbues his conversation as he reflects on the sustainability of this work. “Data brings the ability to speak boldly about the city and cast a realistic vision of our progress,” he says. “Our ultimate goal is to benefit the people of Jackson by addressing issues that directly affect our residents’ lives.”

Transforming cities

The scope of GovEx’s work is pretty breathtaking, but the center is also groundbreaking in several ways. First, the focus is on mid-sized cities like Jackson, Louisville, and Tulsa, municipalities often overlooked because of their size or lack of expertise in data collection. Second, the services of GovEx’s senior implementation officers and analysts, as well as any additional technological or other resources that might be needed, are free to all cities. Third, says Blauer, is situating this center within Johns Hopkins.

“This is the first time a university has been establishing relationships with cities this way to create a network that’s going to be so vast and wide,” she explains. “There really has never been—particularly a university-led—initiative that’s focused on cities that’s providing real resources to cities to help them to build out capacities in these areas. So it’s really uncharted water.”

The next phase of the program will see faculty from the Krieger School identifying research opportunities within cities based on GovEx’s work. “We’re getting cities ready to understand how they can start to improve the quality of data and get data in machine readable formats,” says Blauer. “But the other bonus is then we have this huge network of researchers that we’re going to start making connections to who will be working on solving some of the most pressing issues that the 21st century is facing.”

This work has already started with support to Stephen Morgan, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology, for his work examining policing and the Ferguson effect in the city of Baltimore and to Joshua Sharfstein, associate dean for public health practice and training at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, supporting research on the impact of falls reduction in long-term healthcare spending. Over the course of the next three years, GovEx will facilitate additional partnerships between cities and Hopkins researchers.

As a result of these partnerships, we can transform a city in a decade.” Kathryn Edin, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Department of Sociology

Kathryn Edin, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Department of Sociology

“The work of GovEx embodies the mission and method of the 21st Century Cities Initiative,” says Kathryn Edin, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative. “It’s data-intensive, deeply focused, and deeply partnered with cities. It has also yielded measurable results.

“As a result of these partnerships, we can transform a city in a decade,” she adds. “And this is a great place to invest our efforts.”