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How New York City Might Do to Government what Obama Did to Campaigning

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, February 28 2013

Photo: Trodel / Flickr

The same idea that revolutionized Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign is now being put to use in New York City government.

Obama's 2012 presidential campaign was famous for its culture of data-driven decision making, fueled by a network of analytics experts all working with one another and with their individual client teams. Amelia Showalter, for example, was director of digital analytics, while other analysts crunched the numbers for television ads and field staff. But they weren't sprinkled willy-nilly across the organization — for each piece of data, there was a strategy. Working across groups was Dan Wagner, the campaign's chief analytics officer.

That's exactly the title that Mike Flowers, director of analytics at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, has just received. Only instead of trying to get someone elected, Flowers' job will be to make sure data and insights flow nicely across agencies to address public needs — even deciding which needs to address first.

Bloomberg announced Flowers' appointment in his State of the City address on Feb. 14. As with Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot and Chief Information and Innovation Officer Rahul Merchant, Flowers is the first person in city history to hold his title. Haot's first job was to get the city's front-facing web presences and social media communications strategies in order, as well as open channels of communication between city officials and New York's top tech talent. Merchant, as CIIO, has authority to direct IT strategy across agencies, consolidating and sharing services.

In an interview, Flowers explained that his position does much the same for insights about the city that each agency might be able to create or share.

With his new authority, Flowers can bring together data from different city agencies and analyze it to improve the city's response to everything from fire hazardous buildings to 311 calls. But that's just the beginning. The idea is that as city officials gain a better understanding of the quantified city by sharing internal data in real time, they will be making data available to the public more current and comprehensive.

Agencies using data is not new. The NYPD pioneered data-driven policing with a system that came to be known as CompStat, for instance, and the Department of Sanitation uses data as it decides how to most efficiently route garbage trucks throughout the city. And the idea isn't specific to New York City. Chicago has a "chief data officer" who works with analytics across various city agencies, and those two cities have formed a working group on analytics with fellow number-crunchers in Philadelphia and Boston.

Nor is Flowers a newcomer to the idea that agencies should share what they have. His work began as a kind of start-up concept under John Feinblatt, a top Bloomberg advisor for policy and strategic planning, to look at how data could help drive city operations more effectively, he said. As city agencies began to embrace the idea, attitudes changed across city government and it became more apparent that there were concrete, immediate benefits to the sometimes woolly concept of "open data." Hence his role change.

"We've reached a critical mass point where it needed some City Hall assistance so that these agencies can leverage data on behalf of each other," Flowers said.

For example, he said, analysis had found a correlation between buildings with owners under a tax lien for tax delinquency and catastrophic fires.

"One obvious example of cross-agency analytics at the City Hall level is the usage of data from the Fire Department, the Finance Department and the Housing Preservation and Development Department to drive the prioritization of safety inspections by the Department of Buildings," Flowers explains.

"That's an extremely novel approach," he said. "Before we started, we didn't know what we knew."

The new combination of data can now help the Department of Buildings determine where it sends its inspectors first, he said.

As agencies benefit, he says, so will citizens. The first datasets he started out with were the easiest ones to find — ones that were also available to the public. He discovered that they had a degree of "staleness."

"We'd like to eliminate that," he said. "The systems I've built for myself can be leveraged for that effort."

Flowers' work will also include establishing data standards across agencies that may make open data more useful. Suppose several agencies have records relating to the Starbucks at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street. Some agencies might store that information using a building identification number while others might use longitude and latitude.

"We need to take that information that is fragmented" and recombine it for public consumption, he said. The same way this helps agencies, it can help citizens.

The New York Times recently reported on a new smartphone app from the Department of Buildings that shows what Flowers means.

"It's a fairly clever application, but you're limited in terms of just what DOB knows," he said. "That's a fraction of what the city knows about that building."

In the future, he suggested, a New Yorker looking to rent an apartment could look up an address and also find out about whether there were heat or hot water problems, which are under the purview of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, whether the landlord has paid his taxes according to the Finance Department, and how the building is classified by the Department of City Planning.

This approach is also at work in the city's 311 non-emergency response line. By looking at data from across city agencies, he said, every complaint that comes in from 311 goes through a "risk filter" to help officials decide which ones to respond to first.

Bringing those disparate sources of information together, he said, "is not a technological issue, it's a bureaucratic issue."

This post has been updated to fix an editing error. It mistakenly referred to New York City Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot by her birth name, Rachel Sterne.