In Depth

Published on March 13th, 2014 | by Travis Korte


NYC Mayor Needs Analytics In His Corner

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.

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.

This article was originally published in InformationWeek.

Photo credit: Flickr user Kevin Case

About the Author

Travis Korte is a research analyst at the Center for Data Innovation specializing in data science applications and open data. He has a background in journalism, computer science and statistics. Prior to joining the Center for Data Innovation, he launched the Science vertical of The Huffington Post and served as its Associate Editor, covering a wide range of science and technology topics. He has worked on data science projects with HuffPost and other organizations. Before this, he graduated with highest honors from the University of California, Berkeley, having studied critical theory and completed coursework in computer science and economics. His research interests are in computational social science and using data to engage with complex social systems. You can follow him on Twitter @traviskorte.

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