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January 29th, 2018
Cities • Technology • Innovation • Delivery
Zachary Markovits What Works Cities, Director of City Programmes

Finding What Works: Building a movement of data-driven cities

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The @WhatWorksCities programme helps local govt leaders use data improve services and outcomes, and now works with 100 cities in the US

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Cities are hungry to use data to improve quality of life for residents – which is where @WhatWorksCities comes in

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124 million Americans live in cities, and @WhatWorksCities wants all of them to benefit from using data, says @ZachMarko

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Like more than 124 million other American residents, I live in a city. And like most American cities, mine is regularly collecting data.

I wake up in a building that has been licensed with the city since 1910. My morning shower comes from an extensive supply system that measures water usage to spot issues. I walk my dog on city sidewalks that have to be repaired on a regular schedule (and I try to prevent said dog from peeing on city trees that have been strategically planted to ameliorate carbon production).

I take public transportation to work, passing by two city-managed parks along the way to the station. For the almost 30% of Americans who live in cities with populations higher than 100,000, their daily lives, like mine, intersect with city government's effectiveness in measuring and managing almost everything around each step they take, whether they know it or not.

In April of 2015, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched What Works Cities - with the goal of helping cities increase their capacity to use the data they collect every day to improve programmes and services and, ultimately, quality of life for their residents. And our work continues to expand. In the past two weeks, we've hit two major milestones: we began work with our hundredth city, and we announced the first nine cities to win What Works Cities Certification, the first-ever standard of excellence for data-driven local governments.

So what have we learned over the past three years? And what does it mean looking forward?

  1. Cities are hungry for assistance

What Works Cities began as an idea informed by the comments of mayors, city managers, city councilors, and urban leaders across the country, but we could not have anticipated how vast cities' interest in the work would be: almost two out of every three eligible cities have applied to work with What Works Cities.

This hunger to use data is now backed up by our own data. Early in our work, we found that a wide gap exists between cities' desire and ability to implement evidence-based practices. And our continued research has borne this out further. For example, data from 67 potential What Works Cities found that four out of five had engaged the public in a strategic goal, but only two out of five had publicly communicated progress toward this goal. Moreover, three out of four cities had invested in a tool to release data publicly, but barely one in five had a process to release those data regularly.

These are exactly the gaps in practice that we're helping cities build capacity to address. It turns out that cities were looking for a few more tools and resources all along.

  1. Commitment is critical

Any city that wants to imbue data into its operational core needs to know that it often requires a change in organisational culture, and no such change can be successful unless folks are committed to the effort.

Commitment starts from the top, with the mayor, city manager, and city council communicating the importance of data-driven initiatives to their leadership and staff. We measure levels of commitment as a part of our work with cities and have found that strong scores on measures of commitment to data practices are the best predictor of a city's strong performance in using data in other areas of their work. Such measures include whether the city has defined specific, strategic goals and whether the mayor or chief executive has committed publicly to using data to meet them.

This is why it's important when Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer addressed the importance of use data analytics, or when South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg committed to publicly publishing use-of-force data, or when Kansas City Mayor Sly James stated that “if we are guided by facts and data, not politics or ideology, then decisions are usually pretty clear.” The words leaders speak are important, defining priorities for city staff and setting the tone for what residents can expect from their city.

  1. Sharing solutions requires a robust community of cities

As I have written earlier, collaboration and communication are important tools to advance any work. What has surprised me over the past 31 months has been how much city staff, when brought together either virtually or in person through our Community of Cities, begin to share solutions and solve each other's problems.

This includes big solutions, like New Orleans sharing how they used predictive analytics to preemptively install smoke detectors in high-risk homes and prevent fire fatalities, a model Syracuse went on to adopt. And they include smaller solutions, like cities using our internal Slack channel to discuss best practices for geocoding addresses while protecting residents' personally identifiable information or for creating vendor report cards.

And when in doubt, an introduction is all that is necessary to start sharing solutions. Chattanooga brought together other What Works Cities from around the South to discuss their current practices, and cities across the Pacific Northwest continue to meet regularly to address problems specific to them, from data-sharing to homelessness.

  1. The work needs to continue

Since the launch of What Works Cities, we focused on ensuring the sustainability and expansion of any work we begin with a city. As a result, 75% percent of cities that completed their engagement with us over a year ago are still sustaining or expanding their work across all areas in which they received technical assistance from our expert partners.

This includes Mesa, Arizona, which worked with the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University to develop a data-based index that helped the city ensure it piloted a programme to address blight in one of its most vulnerable neighborhoods. Now the city is expanding the programme, with the support of the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab, by bidding out a results-oriented contract that aims to reduce home and property neglect by helping residents access city resources and financial assistance for home rehabilitation services.

It also includes work in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the city expanded its work with the Behavioral Insights Team - which included a randomised control trial to increase police diversity - by starting Behavioral Insights Team Scottsdale, which is in the process of launching a whole series of new randomised control trials to improve services for residents.

The demand for data-driven work is so great that over 60 positions in 40 cities were newly created or expanded following our work together. This includes the first-ever strategic data manager in West Palm Beach, or the elevation of Eric Roche to become Kansas City Missouri's first chief data officer.

So, what comes next?

For residents who live in a What Works City, they should feel confident that their leaders are taking steps to make things work better. And although the road to more effective governing through data is often a long one, it bends toward better places for urbanites to call home.

But all cities can join this movement, which is why we launched our Certification Programme. Any city can work toward adopting its recognised best practices and learn from the examples of other cities leading the way.

Our goal is that, soon, every one of the 124 million Americans who, like me, wakes up in a city will be able to feel confident that, whether they know it or not, their government is using data to make their lives better.



  • Introducing Pete Buttigieg: a mayor on the move. We sit down with Pete Buttigieg, one of America's youngest mayors, who talks data, Democrats - and impact
  • A new look for New Orleans. New Orleans is a city on the up - and then some. Its performance director, Oliver Wise, talks data, accountability and transparency
  • Meet the mayor of music city. Megan Barry is a woman on mission. Nashville's Mayor tells us about turning vision into reality and the reality of life in the top job
  • Sizing up San Diego. San Diego is on the move. Its mayor, Kevin Faulconer, tells Danny Acosta about the challenges of leading California's second largest city into a prosperous future
  • 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
  • Houston, lift off. Houston's Mayor, Annise Parker, oversees America's fourth largest city, one with a booming population and jobs market.  But she's not about to take her foot off the gas
  • Wired up and fired up. Few cities have embraced the digital revolution as successfully as Kansas City. Its mayor, Sly James, tells us how technology is transforming public services and opening up new opportunities for his community today - and tomorrow
  • 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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Zachary Markovits What Works Cities, Director of City Programmes
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