Cities are where civic technologists can place their trust, panel says

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley says collaboration across disciplines will prove key as city and local governments provide a haven for citizens and data scientists looking for a place to store their trust.

As trust in the federal government plummets, city and local governments may find a new role in the ongoing application of data science to social woes.

A room of about 100 data scientists, technologists and local government policy leaders gathered Tuesday at Seattle City Hall for day one of a Big Data and Human Services Workshop led by the MetroLab Network. Keynote speeches and question and answer panels highlighted the complexity and diversity of issues concerning civic technology and data, but panel member and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley grounded the discussions by pointing out a great opportunity afforded all those present.

“I’m very heartened to find that for all the talk about us having lost trust as Americans in the ability of our national government to respond and to function and to work, the opposite is true about our attitudes of our local government and our counties,” said O’Malley, who was also a Democratic candidate for president in 2016. “We actually feel that our local government has become more responsive over the last 15 years and part of it is making it more commonplace and open to use data to support services, the ability for citizens to see visually what we do, how we do it and whether we’re doing it any better than we were before.”

Americans have lost trust in the government. In the 1960s, more than 70 percent of those surveyed reported trust that the government would do the “right” thing most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center study. Today, that statistic occasionally dips below 20 percent. But cities are becoming more mindful of the daily challenges that citizens face, and data is the tool that government is using to bridge the gap between challenge and solution, O’Malley said.


O’Malley, who is also the MetroLab Network’s national adviser, was establishing the landscape fraught with challenges around data and government operations. Each data success story is offset by societal problems like crime and homelessness that don’t appear to be going away any time soon. There’s no consistency in solutions around data — finding data’s value is a challenge that renews with each project. And for all the walks of life represented at this workshop, power struggles between disciplines present natural walls blocking the collaboration needed for progress.

Many professions don’t listen to people unless they’re in the same circles, O’Malley said — teachers, police officers and mayors, especially. Getting people to listen requires proven case studies backed by strong narratives that tap into common goals, he said.

“These imperceptible charts and things people can’t even manipulate that just make you go cross-eyed trying to look at them,” O’Malley said. “That’s like telling people to go pound sand. … As a lawyer, it would be like asking for discovery and then they give you a room full of 800 boxes and say, ‘Go knock yourself out.’”

Leaders should be thinking about presenting data in ways that are relatable and accessible, he said.

“We learn from the visual. We learn from narrative and we learn from the context and the place,” O’Malley said. “So when it comes to the art of persuasion with all of this data, simply having the data is not enough.”


And throughout the day, speakers provided narrative examples that spoke to human struggles.

Amen Ra Mashariki, chief analytics officer at the Office of Data and Analytics (MODA) NYC, said the office found a correlation between the presence of dust and incidence of tenant harassment by landlords.

Christine Gregoire, former Washington governor, found a cultural backing to those at highest risk for motorcycle accidents — they were older men who were getting back in touch with their younger years after their children who had left home. The bikes had gotten much faster, but the men’s reaction times were slower, she quipped.

O’Malley shared discoveries of inmates caught in the revolving door of the correctional system, sometimes returning more than a dozen times for similar petty crimes.

“We are in desperate need right now as a culture of data science that informs social science,” O’Malley said. “… We have in many ways become a trivial culture. Even if you look at some of the Democratic or Republican presidential debates, the coverage leaned much more to gameshow than to a rational exchange of ideas.”


Data can bring a rational perspective. O’Malley shared an anecdote in which Baltimore was in recent years forced to close seven fire stations. Concerned with making decisions that could be perceived or actually be based on latent or unintentional racism, a dispassionate data-driven approach allowed the city to select the facilities for closure based purely on population coverage of the stations that would remain.

“There is a real critical need,” he said, “and I think it’s a role that trusted levels of government — typically or cities and local governments — can play in grounding our public discourse on the basis of the actual data.”

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