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Open Data Initiative Seeks to Improve Life in Eight Mid-Sized Cities

Written by Amanda Maher

In recent years, cities have worked to become more transparent by opening their books, posting documents online and releasing more and more data sets for public scrutiny. These efforts improve transparency and allow for greater citizen engagement, but they can also help to improve public service delivery. Scrutiny of such data has helped Denver save $145,000 by reducing the number of times police responded to false alarms. A New York City resident found that drivers were collectively incurring $55,000 per year in parking tickets at two fire hydrants—a simple fix with clearer signage.

Though more than 30 cities now have open data policies, what they do with their data varies. Cities with thriving innovation ecosystems, like Boston, San Francisco and New York, have been able to release data and tap local entrepreneurs as collaborators. Other cities need more support.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has stepped in to provide that support through its $42 million “What Works Cities” initiative. Bloomberg Philanthropies will help 100 cities improve data collection, analysis and availability in order to improve local government decision making. The first eight cities were announced earlier this month: Chattanooga, Kansas City, Louisville, New Orleans, Seattle, Tulsa, Mesa and Jackson, Miss.

“The basic idea is that cities are collecting an incredible amount of data, and traditionally, governments have kept that data behind closed doors,” Jim Anderson, head of government innovation programs and Bloomberg Philanthropies, told the Huffington Post. “But over the last decade, there’s been a movement to get that data out into people’s hands and let citizens better understand what’s happening in their cities.”

Funding will go toward technical assistance provided by experts at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Johns Hopkins University, the Sunlight Foundation, Results for America and the Behavioral Insights Team. Partners will work with each city for three years.

As the name “What Works” suggests, the selected cities will look to others with more well-established open data policies to see how data analysis can be replicated locally to improve related conditions. “There’s a big appetite for understanding what’s working in other places,” Anderson explained.

For example, New Orleans’ BlightStats program used data to identify and remove 10,000 blighted homes and increase home compliance with city code by 62 percent in just two years. Jackson is looking to BlightStats as a model for handling its crisis of run-down properties—a number of which are unsafe for habitation or have been abandoned by their owners. “The dilapidated housing piece is huge, and we spend a lot of energy trying to boost property values and clean up properties,” said Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber. “But sometimes it can feel like we’re spinning our wheels.”

Guiding cities toward more informed policy, funding and management decisions offers real promise for improving life in many of the nation’s inner city communities.

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