Why Big Data Is a Big Deal for Cities

John M. Kamensky in Governing: “We hear a lot about “big data” and its potential value to government. But is it really fulfilling the high expectations that advocates have assigned to it? Is it really producing better public-sector decisions? It may be years before we have definitive answers to those questions, but new research suggests that it’s worth paying a lot of attention to.

University of Kansas Prof. Alfred Ho recently surveyed 65 mid-size and large cities to learn what is going on, on the front line, with the use of big data in making decisions. He found that big data has made it possible to “change the time span of a decision-making cycle by allowing real-time analysis of data to instantly inform decision-making.” This decision-making occurs in areas as diverse as program management, strategic planning, budgeting, performance reporting and citizen engagement.

Cities are natural repositories of big data that can be integrated and analyzed for policy- and program-management purposes. These repositories include data from public safety, education, health and social services, environment and energy, culture and recreation, and community and business development. They include both structured data, such as financial and tax transactions, and unstructured data, such as recorded sounds from gunshots and videos of pedestrian movement patterns. And they include data supplied by the public, such as the Boston residents who use a phone app to measure road quality and report problems.

These data repositories, Ho writes, are “fundamental building blocks,” but the challenge is to shift the ownership of data from separate departments to an integrated platform where the data can be shared.

There’s plenty of evidence that cities are moving in that direction and that they already are systematically using big data to make operational decisions. Among the 65 cities that Ho examined, he found that 49 have “some form of data analytics initiatives or projects” and that 30 have established “a multi-departmental team structure to do strategic planning for these data initiatives.”….The effective use of big data can lead to dialogs that cut across school-district, city, county, business and nonprofit-sector boundaries. But more importantly, it provides city leaders with the capacity to respond to citizens’ concerns more quickly and effectively….(More)”