NYC Mayor Needs Analytics In His Corner - InformationWeek

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Data Management // Software Platforms
09:06 AM
Travis Korte
Travis Korte

NYC Mayor Needs Analytics In His Corner

Mayor de Blasio needs more than public support to advance his plans for jobs, education, and public safety. He must harness big data.

Internet Of Things: 8 Cost-Cutting Ideas For Government
Internet Of Things: 8 Cost-Cutting Ideas For Government
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's inaugural State of the City remarks set an ambitious, liberal agenda. Covering topics including income inequality, education, and environmental sustainability, de Blasio will have his work cut out for him as he challenges some of the city's most deeply rooted problems.

One way his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, worked to address city challenges was with municipal data analytics programs and an overarching, data-driven mindset. Building on Bloomberg's successes with data policies and applying lessons from other cities, de Blasio can make great strides toward improving the quality of life for New York City's 8.3 million residents.

Jobs and economic development
Mayor de Blasio has proposed a variety of measures around job training, including creating a system to connect jobseekers with various programs. Centralizing data from the city's various unconnected job-placement systems is a step in the right direction, but New York should also apply analytics to match jobseekers with jobs and training opportunities. Such systems, deployed in the private sector, could broaden opportunities for the city's nearly 700,000 unemployed workers.

[Municipal demands are getting more sophisticated every day, and IT must keep up. Read Why Smart Cities Need Cloud Services.]

De Blasio also plans to promote economic growth through expanded small-business development. This initiative includes simplifying the city's complex municipal contracting process to be more accessible to local businesses, a process that open data can improve. Philadelphia and Chicago have experimented with treating procurement requests, even small ones, as open data, letting government officials and respondents find, mark up, and comment on proposals for potential city contracts.

The mayor is also focusing on the city's education system, with the goals of improving graduation rates, prioritizing limited teaching resources, and maximizing the quality of elementary and secondary schools.

To accomplish those goals, the city must embrace large-scale analysis of student records and teaching assessments to provide more accurate data on what's working and what isn't. But de Blasio has opposed efforts -- specifically through the not-for-profit inBloom -- to consolidate student data in support of analysis and personalized learning. Insights to be gleaned from student data won't be available as long as that information remains siloed in individual schools and systems that don't interoperate. The mayor must rethink his position.

Securing the city against natural disasters is another key part of de Blasio's agenda. For starters, the mayor must maintain his predecessor's commitment to disseminating information, including mapping and data visualization, in times of crisis. During 2012's Hurricane Sandy, government technologists enlisted the data science community to update evacuation maps with minute-to-minute flood predictions, and they drew on open data sources to map shelters and recovery centers. Information is never more precious than during a disaster, and smart, responsive data dissemination can save lives.

But even before disaster strikes, data analysis can identify vulnerable buildings and neighborhoods to help the city direct its infrastructure upgrades and retrofitting. New York City already has combined data from building inspections and fire incidents to identify the buildings most vulnerable to deadly fires, and the new mayor has an opportunity to expand this strategy to predict other disasters.

Promoting green standards for building construction and renovation covers only a fraction of an average building's lifespan. De Blasio could take those plans further by promoting in-building power monitoring for existing structures. There, he should take a cue from a project funded by the US Department of Energy that uses low-cost sensors to collect data on power usage, temperature, airflow, and occupant schedules to create a dashboard that alerts building occupants to when they should turn off a device, open a window, or take other energy-saving steps.

Crime and safety
The mayor's plans for policing, including increasing use of the audio-based gunshot-detection system ShotSpotter and expanding the data-driven gang-targeting initiative Operation Crew Cut, are on the right track. One area for improvement is in the use of open data. While the New York City Police Department has been reluctant to release granular data, de Blasio wants to change that approach, having given the NYPD a failing grade in transparency last year when he was still the city's Public Advocate.

The mayor also supports Vision Zero, a program that uses red light cameras and speed detectors to enforce safe driving. More data can alleviate the "he said, she said" problem of crash investigations, and de Blasio’s leadership in this area will undoubtedly inspire similar efforts in other cities.

New York City's vibrant community of data science startups and civic hackers are eager to help with most of the programs cited above. But first, the mayor must fully embrace a philosophy of data-driven innovation.

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Travis Korte is a research analyst with the Center for Data Innovation, where he conducts research in general data policy, open government, and health analytics. He has worked on data science projects with the Huffington Post and other organizations.   View Full Bio

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Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
3/14/2014 | 10:35:25 AM
Re: Education
I get the attraction of charter schools, but I also get the argument that they syphon funds and cherry pick students with motivated parents from public schools, which cannot pick and choose what students to admit. How is anyone surprised that data shows charter schools do better? They have their choice of students. This skews the data from the beginning. Then to make matters worse, the public school is left with students expected to underperform and fewer funds to deal with that population.

If you want to prove that charters work better, randomly assign students in a blind fashion so that they also must deal with unmotivated families and disciplinary issues. Do that for a few years, then compare the numbers. If charters are still ahead, at that point, there should be wholesale change. But for now, charter vs. public is not an equal playing field.
User Rank: Author
3/14/2014 | 9:24:03 AM
Re: Education
I'm skeptical de Blasio will use analytics or big data because they most likely will disprove his platform, especially regarding education. He appears to be using his position to guarantee jobs for his pals, with little consideration for the boys and girls who are his real "customers." If he looked at the data -- from NYC and other large metropolitan areas -- I am pretty sure he'd see charter schools are successful and that's why so many parents (and students) want to attend them. 

We all may sometimes bemoan this world of metrics and analysis, but there are some definite upsides: when done correctly, analytics removes sentiment from the equation and clearly shows what works and what doesn't. You can then debate how to further improve performance -- whether it's education, police, a publication, or customer service -- but the straight data doesn't lie. 
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/13/2014 | 1:38:29 PM
Reaction to one disaster sets the stage for the next
When Hurricane Sandty struck New York, one phenomenon that emerged was how one disaster sets the stage for the next. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, building owners in New York were ordered to keep a minimum of fuel oil for their backup generators on premises, lest such supplies provide fuel for and spread another 9/11 type incident. So when 75 Broad St. was hit wtih a storm surge during the 2012 hurricane,it lost its basement fuel oil pumping system. It also lost the operative elements of its disaster recovery plan because oil delivery trucks could not get through. Generators on the 18th floor were fine, but would have had to shutdown upon the exhaustion of short term fuel supplies. This is where Pier 1 organized the bucket brigade to carry fuel oil up 17 floors and kept the generators running. Is there some analytics program that can examine what went wrong in the previous disaster and predict how corrective measures may impact the next? It's time to review the fuel oil restrictions in NYC.
D. Henschen
D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
3/13/2014 | 12:25:51 PM
Head-in-the-sand move to the old school?
I thought Bloomberg's administration was a model of efficiency and can-do management (and it always recovered from occasional overzealousness). I have to a agree that de Blasio is off to a worrying start, appointing a bunch of holdovers from bygone eras and cow-towing to put-upon interest groups. Coverage this week reveals that NYC-run magnet schools are FAR from representative of the overall population because they rely on bogus, multiple-choice tests. The campaign-donating 1% get their kids into those schools, and then they cluck about the wonderful NYC school system while the rest are ill served.

I can only hope that we're not back to the can't-do bureaucratic nightmare that was the Lindsay/ Beame/Koch/Dinkins era.  
User Rank: Author
3/13/2014 | 9:43:07 AM
When it comes to improving education, de Blasio needs to look at two sets of data: the data that shows the city's charter schools outperforming most of its regular public schools in poor areas, and the data showing that parents in poor neighborhoods with bad schools strongly favor having a charter school option. Stop catering to the 1%: the teachers' union desperately trying to protect its underperforming monopoly.
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