Pandemic was 'stress test' for data office, says Kansas City official

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The value of data was made clear last year as cities fought to slow the spread of the coronavirus, forcing offices like Kansas City, Missouri’s, DataKC to endure a 10-month “stress test” of its ability to analyze and visualize data for residents and policymakers. The result, said Kate Bender, Kansas City’s deputy performance officer, was a resounding confirmation of the good that data analysis can do for a city’s economy and public health.

Bender and her office compiled their work in DataKC’s 2020 annual report, published last month, detailing the pandemic-specific projects and surveys that the city commissioned. It also explored the regular scope of data analysis projects designed by the team, including customer feedback surveys, A/B testing projects and mobile app developments. Data, Bender and her office wrote, served as the “foundational bedrock” for Kansas City’s COVID-19 efforts, powering the tools that allowed city officials to detect where outbreaks were occurring, what messages to send to the community and visualizations that displayed trends in the virus’s spread. Looking back, Bender said, the sudden interest in public data made 2020 “the year of the dashboard.”

“Dashboards are one of those things that cities build and some of them are used a lot and a lot of them are not used a lot,” Bender said. “So I think this year was like ‘the year of the dashboard.’ All of a sudden, people had like a dashboard they were actually looking at every day or every week.”

Bender said that between last March and June, her team devoted 75% of its schedule to pandemic-related projects, including the development of a citywide emergency teleworking program that moved remote approximately 20% of the city’s internal workforce. Bender’s office also stood up a work program called DeployKC to redirect city employees who could not perform remote work, like office administrators, to emergency positions like contact tracers, testing assistants and appointment schedulers. The shift toward COVID-19 projects was sudden, but not overwhelming, she said.

“You had brand new issues that were incredibly dynamic, where there was a need to bring in information and act on the fly. We worked on several projects to extend and ensure that we were keeping our finger on the pulse of public perception and engaging the public,” Bender said. “We’re fortunate that our office, DataKC, has actually been around for 11 years and has adapted itself to the organization.”

Bender said her office reached out to the city’s various departments — like finance and public health — to see how it could assist with COVID-19 projects, rather than only working within the mayor’s and city manager’s offices. Bender said her office initially began upping its outreach to city departments in 2019, a move that prepared them well for the chaos of 2020. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the data office found time to work with agencies — like neighborhoods and housing services, water, public works and parks and recreation — to move the city’s 311 system into a mobile app, as well as conduct a community-improvement survey to determine which neighborhoods in the city needed redevelopment.

Meeting over video conferencing instead of in-person expedited those projects, Bender said, and made it easier to put representatives from multiple departments in front of one another.

“The projects in our 2019 annual report are all department driven,” Bender said, “and we had a great response from departments in terms of seeking us out to do that work. So this year, I felt like it put us in a good position to be able to be able to offer our tools and services for COVID-19 projects specifically.”

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DataKC, Kansas City, Kate Bender, Public data
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