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The Mayor of London The London Assembly

Organising and Mobilising for Change: Observations and Lessons from America’s leading Data Cities

Last week I attended a gathering of the Civic Analytics Network.  This was an incredibly useful and hard-working event, supported by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.

This quick report sets out a series of observations and reactions.  If you are interested in increasing data and digital capabilities and fostering collaboration to drive better decision making, service improvement and public engagement, have a read and do let me know what you think.  At the very least, I hope you find some interesting information and practice behind the links. I say at the outset that this piece is in no way meant to be a tribute to leading practice in US cities.  They do things differently, have different tools at their disposal, and work at different scales in different operating settings.  Sometimes they achieve better results; and sometimes not.

First, a couple of points on the group. It is aimed at Chief Data Officers operating in US city government settings, although the smattering of Chief Digital and Chief Information Officers and assorted others points to two observations.  First, that lead responsibility for data and analytics often sits with different posts, in different places in the city authority.  Some are based in the Mayor’s Office, others are housed in the IT Department, others in well-established digital teams, like that of our host city Boston.  Second, room to take leadership out of the narrow discipline of data to effect proper change across the organisation is heavily influenced by position and proximity to a political leadership that ‘fundamentally gets it’.

These differences aside, there are some common areas.  Whether establishing new Data and Innovation Offices, mainstreaming analytics into policy and decision making, or turning data into a horizontal service to be applied across the business, all are experiencing and aiming to lead change.  All see data as an asset to be further organised and exploited, and which along with themselves, needs to be brought closer still to the policy and politics.  All are clearly at the forefront of city data operations in the US, and committed.

On this point, this felt like a ‘professionalising moment’ – a tipping point when a group moves away from loose collaboration, the informal exchange of ideas and the occasional moment of group therapy.  This meeting was about getting serious – agreeing shared goals and working towards them, and attempting to shape the emerging market for city data management and analytics in a coherent way.

I have some high-level, ‘co-ordinate and do’ takeaways.

  • This was a well-supported group. The American philanthropic organisations are keen backers of data-focussed improvement initiatives for city government.  What Works Cities, Data-Smart City Solutions, and GovEx at Johns Hopkins University are all headline examples.  Here in the UK, we need to find a means of either importing the same funding model and/or finding a new way of giving financial and professional support to similar capacity building enterprises. 
  • There was active engagement with Federal Government, who had come out of Washington to listen and work on ways of achieving lobbying aims and accessing funding. Maybe I have been hiding under a rock, but I have not seen any central to local government engagement in a long while now?  If digital and data-led transformation away from central government is to start happening at anything approaching scale, then local government needs to find a way of moving beyond the dispersed, fragmented leadership model we operate now.
  • Messaging Federal Government is only part of the story though. This group was starting to seriously self-organise around a series of work programmes from planning next generation open data portals to establishing their own data training programme.  In the absence of a serious local government focus in GDS, this self-organising approach seems like a model worth copying.  There is enough expertise amongst us to build in a practical sense from the Local Government Digital Service Standard into more technical areas (e.g. gathering knowledge and experience of IoT testbed activity, or how we apply security standards to guard against cyber attack).
  • The replication potential across municipalities is there to be realised. This point resonates with me always.   City authorities can build once, adapt as they need to, and share often for impact.  Whether this is re-using algorithms designed to find Chicago’s rats for something similar in Philadelphia or New York, or co-designing data products and services to be deployed in similar urban settings, sharing and collaboration can allow more boats to benefit from a rising tide.  This is exactly what the Data and Technology Agreement signed by the London and Chicago Mayors sets out to achieve.  To seriously challenge existing practice, we in London should create a centre of excellence for the development of common city data and digital services (often referred to as micro-services), in which technical resources and service design competencies are brought together.  And looking further afield, there is no real reason why the underlying data techniques and implementation developed for the London Schools Atlas, and potentially other predictive models, cannot be used elsewhere in the country.         

And without picking on or praising anyone in particular, some more specific points which struck me as very practical and worth a closer look:

  • New Orleans has done some great work on civic analytics typologies – from ‘finding the needle in a haystack’ through to ‘optimising resource allocation’ – in a bid to get customers up the curve in terms of generating their own ideas for analytics deployment and data exploration.
  • In a similar vein, New York’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics carry out ‘data drills’ every 2 months – normally around emergency scenarios – with politicians and officer. Underneath the scenario work, the aim is to identify gaps in data and subsequent gaps in knowledge, and to facilitate more data sharing across City Departments underneath the alert gaze of politicians and with the help of the city’s 2012 Open Data Law.
  • San Francisco has an established set of classroom-based courses to help analysts and data customers increase their skill set. Have a look at the San Francisco Data Academy pages to find out more.

For all of the above, London, and even perhaps a wider configuration, should consider doing similar.  A capital-wide ‘law’, or at least a memorandum of understanding in which public services commit to delivering against a published data release plan, matched to pre-determined uses seems like a useful start.  And can we not between us form a city technology curriculum, designed to increase preparedness for, and ability to work with, emerging technology and data techniques? And while the London Office of Data Analytics Pilot is a super start, how do we organise an effort across London government to engage more readily with policy colleagues once we move – hopefully – to the real thing?

In conclusion, I came away from this gathering with the distinct impression that, whether here or in the States, we are approaching a moment when within cities, and certainly here in London, stronger collaboration and proper organisation is now needed to build further momentum around data sharing and analytics which gets noticed by senior leadership.

Further to this though, it is the firming up of collaborative efforts of the type identified in this post, set in a stronger organising framework between cities, that will increase our collective confidence, and that will ultimately create a more mature set of relationships between ourselves and suppliers, in a market that is still some distance away from maturity.

Time to organise and mobilise for change?