Small and midsized cities can build data-capacity by being 'realistic'

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Small and midsized cities often lack the time and money necessary to dedicate their staff toward “smart city” efforts, but officials in those places say building robust data analysis into their city programming is as simple as being “realistic” with what they can accomplish, officials said Tuesday.

For officials like Pamela Marino, the acting director of Norfolk, Virginia’s, Civic Lab, that means understanding that a data-driven culture can’t be bought or brought to city hall overnight, she said during a panel discussion hosted by Civis Analytics, a data analysis firm that helps cities and states refine their public engagement and messaging strategies.

Norfolk, home to about 250,000 residents, didn’t have a coherent data strategy or a “grand scheme,” limiting the interest that Marino received from her colleagues in other agencies, she said. That was solved, however, by quickly assembling a data structure “that grabbed people from across the city,” said Marino, whose office is housed in the city’s budget and strategic planning department.

“We got as many people to have skin in the game [as possible],” Marino said. “The culture change, we knew, was going to be the last thing that would come along. We were not going to be able to get out there and say, ‘This is what you will do, you’ll have this culture.’ For a long time, we didn’t have what I like to call ‘teeth’ — we just had our delightful personalities that we went out to beg people to play with us.”

Marino also said that over time, Norfolk officials have become more comfortable publishing and relying on data, in part thanks to the formation of a citywide “data leaders” council that votes on whether various data sets should be published. She called that evolution “the name of the game.”

Kate Kigongo, a senior innovation analyst for the City of West Hollywood, California, agreed with that point, saying that organizational change is the most difficult part of building the capacity for a data-driven government. But small cities might need to pace themselves.

“Our plan calls for having a full-time data lead,” Kigongo said. “But if you’re just a small group of volunteers doing this, being realistic with what you can accomplish helps set the playing field at a very even level for everyone involved and sets the pace for change.”

West Hollywood isn’t a large city, and Kigongo, who joined the local government in 2015, said she knew that assembling a team of five or six full-time data scientists — or even a lone GIS specialist — was unlikely. So rather than dedicate city staff to providing data analysis, her goal is to train all of her colleagues to do it themselves, she said.

“We don’t have anybody dedicated to data,” Kigongo said. “We really envisioned a city in which every team has the capacity to do their own data analytics.”

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Civis Analytics, Norfolk, Smart Cities, West Hollywood
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