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Article May 3rd, 2017
Cities • Technology

City break: how Cincinnati is reaping digital dividends

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Cincinnati is using open data to power its deployment of public services across the city

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City residents in Cincinnati can track the performance of public services via an online portal

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Chief performance officer @LeighTami says Cincinnati is on the way to becoming a 'smart city'

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In a small office, deep in the warren of corridors inside Cincinnati's City Hall, you can find the chief performance officer, Leigh Tami. Alongside four team members - no government excess here - she is likely to be found poring over reams of real-time data streaming in about the city's public services.

For Tami, the Cincinnati city government's embrace of all things digital is a reflection of a deeper movement. "A lot of things are brewing here," she says. "The startup culture is robust, as people are being priced out of Silicon Valley and the big cities in the northeast. This means a lot of smaller businesses or tech companies use a city like ours to do proof of concept work. In my opinion - and especially pertaining to the kind of work that I'm doing - what is really cool is that Cincinnati is a big city but also one which is small enough to move from execution to completion, so you can show that something new can be done."

And "something new" is also something that Tami and her colleagues have been seeking - and achieving - ever since starting work a couple of years ago.

City on the move

Cincinnati, Ohio is located deep in the heart of the Rust Belt, a region of the US that has attracted much attention in recent years. Long seen as something of a political bellwether, Tami says that the development of big data, digital transformation, and deployment of “smart” technology in the city itself has managed to evade much of the partisan wrangling that has strangled new initiatives elsewhere in the US.

"Cincinnati has a city manager form of government, which is pretty unusual for a city this size," she points out. "We were able to move quickly and effectively to create our office and operationalise data analytics because of the support and investment of the mayor and the city council. However, since the city manager operates like the city's COO,” - Tami reports directly to the city manager Harry Black - “we usually encounter fewer political hurdles, which means quicker turnaround time and increased bandwidth to focus on operations and initiative implementation.”

She also says that something like data and technology is akin to a common-sense tool which can bridge partisan divides. "Debate normally only comes when it is about the means, how we should measure this, and what resources should we allocate towards this target," she says. "In my experience, it's not like one group hates data and the other one loves data. Because of the city's size, and also because of the work we are doing, we have had tremendous support from the council and the mayor, even though we're not a political office."

She is particularly keen to pay tribute to the influence of city manager Black, who arrived in Cincinnati a few years ago from a similar role in Baltimore - where he worked on the city's award-winning CitiStat programme, set up by former mayor Martin O'Malley. "One of the first things he did was identify the need to have an office of performance and analytics," explains Tami. "He'd seen the CitiStat process in action and was very familiar with that model - and the mayor and council totally agreed.”

Interestingly, Tami's gratitude for Black's leadership and support echoes that of Beth Blauer's for O'Malley. Blauer, who worked with O'Malley to set up CitiStat and then Maryland's StateStat, has always said that political support is crucial when it comes to starting a new data-driven approach - and Tami fully concurs. "My first day was the first day we were physically in the office space - the paint was still wet and there were boxes everywhere," she recalls. "Harry's vision is to use data to measure and understand performance, improve customer service, and give us access to what is really going on across the city. This vision is what makes our work so feasible, and his support has allowed us to get so much done in so little time."

From legal eagle to data devotee  

Tami is no lifelong data disciple, it transpires. A lawyer by training - she studied public finance and education law before passing the New York Bar Exam - she was looking for something outside of the law but a role where she could still use her legal training. She found it in Cincinnati, taking up a role as a data analyst just two years ago.

"It sounded interesting, and the kind of work I would like to do, but didn't realise it would turn into a career that I would be really passionate about," she says. "I quickly realised that data is really not unlike law on a policy and problem-solving level, and so I started to learn more about the technology, learning how to code and how to program. It was just a really good fit."

Tami believes that many other people could make a similar transition if they got over their fear of technology, arguing that it really isn't as difficult or as intimidating as many might initially think. "There are a lot of people who could be really proficient with their understanding and use of data, but who can't get over the technology barrier. It's like a ‘black box' - they don't understand how it works, and assume that they can't," she observes. "This is a shame because a lot of it is not necessarily about the technology, but more about understanding the issue, the processes behind it, and about building relationships - persuading people that we can be trusted with their data and that we can talk through their information to create something that will be helpful.”

A good example of this is the city's CincyInsights - a new portal with 15 dashboards that allow citizens to track the performance of public services. Updated every 10 minutes, and covering everything from trash collection to drug overdoses, Tami is justifiably proud of the initiative - which cost just $55,000 to implement. “It has been live for just over four months and we have had more than 50,000 views,” she says. “We've been helped by the fact that open data is not a new concept, but we've really tried to make them as user-friendly as possible. The dashboards are relatively intuitive in that if you click on one thing, everything else filters against it.”

She also believes that the fact it is nearly real-time is hugely powerful - for citizens and city officials alike. "Over the winter, citizens could check on snowplough progress, for example, whereas health leaders use it to see where to deploy their teams. Social services and the health department use it every day to see where are there are high volumes of overdoses, and this is exactly what it is supposed to be used for - helping people act with the information they require."

“Smartening up” Cincinnati

There is little doubt that Cincinnati has made huge digital progress over the past couple of years - a fact noted by Government Technology magazine recently in making Tami one of their "Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2017” - but there seems little sign of her slowing down any time soon. Next up on the "to-do list" is helping evolve Cincinnati into a smart city.

"No-one seems to totally know what 'smart city' actually means," she says, laughing. "But in the city of Cincinnati, we have just issued a tender for vendors to compete to build out a smart city infrastructure. Our approach is twofold: first, to see if we can integrate it with our existing infrastructure; and second, making sure that it actually solves a problem. A lot of this smart city technology stuff looks cool - and is cool - but doesn't necessarily answer a specific need. But to my mind, identifying a problem and subsequently seeking to solve it with technology is what a smart city is all about."

Ultimately, though, it comes down to people. "Even though I think technology is great, a 'smart city' is only as smart as the people actually implementing it," she concludes.

Cincinnati residents need have no fear on that score.



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  • Doorway to delivery. Kevin Donahue has spent his career seeking to harness the power of data to improve government services. He tells Adrian Brown why good data is not an end in itself, but rather an opportunity to achieve better citizen outcomes
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  • Making change real: Vancouver's vision. Vancouver has achieved global acclaim for its natural setting and standards of ‘liveability'. The city's mayor, Gregor Robertson, tells us why he is focused on helping citizens today - and those of tomorrow
  • City limits.  How did a city mayor persuade his community to go on a diet? With the citizens of Oklahoma City now a million pounds lighter, Mick Cornett tells Adrian Brown about how he helped create a healthier future
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Written by:

Danny Buerkli Co-Founder, staatslabor
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