During his run for mayor, Eric Garcetti campaigned on the power of his youthful perspective and his willingness to seek innovative solutions to governance, especially those related to technology. A prominent part of his new administration is the integration of big data into city management, with the immediate goal of tracking key measures of performance for every city agency.
Starting this week, on the 100th day of his administration, Garcetti hopes to provide actual data that will give city residents an idea about how many potholes the city fixes each week and how long it takes to answer 911 calls, among other city services. Taking a cue from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Compstat system, Garcetti and Rick Cole, the deputy mayor for budget and innovation, are encouraging city managers to use technology to think about how to make city services more responsive to the needs of city residents.
“We expect them to take a page from that model and begin to think more rigorously about how we’re doing, and to measure how we’re doing,” Cole said at his City Hall office overlooking Grand Park. “And if the number of books circulated is no longer a relevant way of judging a successful library, what is a relevant way of judging the success of a library?”
The idea of using data to give rapid and regular feedback about the performance of city agencies isn’t new; it’s already in use with several cities nationwide. Under business-minded Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York has earned glowing reviews for its work to make city’s activities more transparent through its NYCStat site. And Boston is a city with a strong record of governance and innovation. Mayor Thomas Merino has been a pioneer in utilizing technology to increase participation and efficiency for city services. He helped co-found the Office of New Urban Mechanics to build innovative partnerships between city agencies, outside institutions, and entrepreneurs in order to foster civic innovation. From Street Bump, a mobile app that helps residents improve neighborhood streets, to a scorecard measuring Boston’s record of providing services to residents, Boston is known as an incubator for experimental projects with the potential to advance the quality and delivery of city services. Closer to home, San Diego is already experimenting with ways to put real- data about infrastructure projects online.
While technological interfaces for governance issues are relatively new, the boundaries for urban data in governance are burgeoning. The operations of some cities have already been transformed, while other vistas, such as increasing civic engagement and the democratic process through technology, are the topics of discussion. Concepts like civic hacking, where citizens with technical expertise gather to help improve government services with public data and digital innovation, are growing more popular from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (And June 1-2, 2013, was declared a National Day of Civic Hacking by the White House.)
What are the limits of thinking about data in government? Researcher Ricky Burdett of the London School of Economics sees the potential of data to transform the way cities operate as comparable to a “second electrification” for cities. Much like the way electricity radically changed the shape, transit, sewage, and nocturnal hours of cities in the 19th century, data could offer cash-strapped municipalities ways to become more efficient, sustainable, and democratic spaces for the 21st century.