How Big Cities Mine Big Data to Solve Big Problems
Policy + Politics

How Big Cities Mine Big Data to Solve Big Problems

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

Several years ago, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection decided to crack down on restaurants that were clogging up drainpipes by dumping used cooking oil into neighborhood sewers.

Rather than using inspectors to catch restaurant employees in the act, as they might have done in the past, the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning dug up data from an obscure city agency that identifies all local restaurants that employ a carting service to haul away grease.

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With a few quick calculations, comparing restaurants that did not employ a carter using imagery and other geo-spatial data, analysts in 2012 were able to give inspectors a list of statistically likely suspects, The New York Times first reported. The result was a 95 percent success rate in finding and penalizing the dumpers.

The Bloomberg administration made smart use of data. And the recent explosion in the availability of big data is dramatically changing the way cities, businesses, public health organization and other entities are doing business and making decisions, according to a new study by the Pew Charitable Trust released Wednesday.

“Local governments have used performance measurement—collecting and studying data with the aim of improving operating efficiency and effectiveness—for decades, but today’s cities have access to a wealth of other data,” the report said. “Those on the cutting edge are using these data with new analytical tools in innovative ways that often reach beyond the conventional definition of performance measurement.”

In the past, local governments generally examined statistics only within individual departments, but today they’re gleaning insights by combining and crunching data across agencies. Government officials previously reviewed performance statistics annually, quarterly or twice a year. Now they often gain insights in real time, Pew said, letting them be more responsive and efficient.

Related: States Have a Great New Weapon Against Fraud: Big Data

Perhaps most importantly, cities that once used analytics to understand past events are using them to predict future events, enabling officials to better anticipate new trends or potential disasters. In short, cities are using new techniques and strategies to break out of narrow data silos and see a bigger picture.

Pew found that at the local level, new methods of collecting and analyzing information “have varied and far-reaching effects on the ability of leaders to understand and work within their fiscal constraints and meet residents’ needs.”

“These days, cities are working to do more with less,” Robert Zahradnik, director for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health and economic growth work, said. “Our research has shown that two thirds of the large cities we track have not yet recovered from the Great Recession. New kinds of data and data analytics offer governments a way to improve services and operate more efficiently.”

Rick Cole, deputy mayor for budget and innovation in Los Angeles, recently told a National League of Cities conference in Austin, Texas that cities should use data to identify potential problems, understand why they’re happening, and find solutions, Pew found. Cole told the audience, “It’s not the numbers. It’s what you do with the numbers.”

Related: Cities Face Costly Projects to Cope with Climate Change   

Here are other examples of how cities are using big data around the country:

Boston’s Problem Properties Task Force analyzes trends using data points from various city departments – including 25-month crime statistics from neighborhood or police districts and top-ten address lists for code violations – to predict which properties are at risk for more problems. The task force then works with landlords to address complaints and violations promptly.

Detroit Fire Department officials collect information about response times, medical emergencies, calls for assistance and other matters received on 911 lines in planning for improvements in response time and community outreach.

That data has been critical during the city’s financial and budget crisis, when it had to decide which fire companies to shut down to save money. The new system has helped determine which fire companies to brown out at what times to minimize the adverse impact on response times and improve services.

Las Vegas is using a system called the Park Asset Data Collection and Data Conversion Program to cut costs while improving services. The system stores quantitative data and maps for all park amenities, including benches, restrooms, trees, soil and sod. Previously, the city was paying for staff to assess the needs before work could begin.

While this creative use of data has resulted in breakthroughs in government services and enforcement, concerns still exist, said Zahradnik.

“Breaking down silos is important for every level of government, but there are important concerns when sharing information,” Zahradnik said. “For example, sharing administrative data that may improve the outcomes of a program needs to be balanced with protecting the privacy of the individuals seeking services.”

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