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Charleston, South Carolina, USA

Creating a One-Stop-Shop to Track Progress on City Goals.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Environment, Equity, Housing, Infrastructure, Public Safety, Technology

At a Glance

Charleston’s TIDEeye app helps the city and its residents monitor the effects of severe weather by providing real-time data on road closures and weather information.

Charleston has added almost 800 affordable housing units since 2016, and 500 more currently in the pipeline.

Data has shown that 86% of the affordable housing units in development are within .5 miles of public transit.

Known as a tourist destination with idyllic horse-drawn carriages, the City optimized equine waste management with GPS tracking. The system helped reduce cleanup time from 40 minutes to 20 minutes.

Using outcomes-based performance management practices to understand if programs are achieving their intended impact.

For cities with competing priorities and limited resources, making city-wide strategic goals built on data and evidence is an achievement in itself. But tracking progress, engaging residents and strengthening accountability is a tougher feat.

In 2022, the City of Charleston outlined six mayoral priorities and launched PriorityStat, an online dashboard and public meeting series to increase transparency and help the City and residents track progress on these six goals. While traditional city open data dashboards are organized around departments or services, PriorityStat takes a more innovative approach and is centered on City—and residents’—priorities.

For instance, FloodStat, one of the dashboards, is focused on protecting the City from sea level rise and flooding. In the 1950s, Charleston was impacted two  days per year on average by nuisance flooding. In the past five years, that average is now 61 days per year. Traditional dashboards would have relevant metrics, such as police complaints about flooded roads and properties, and city carbon emissions, in different dashboards since they’re in different departments. But addressing flooding and coastal challenges requires many departments to effectively work together. FloodStat helps break down silos by developing and regularly tracking metrics that require cross-agency collaboration. Additionally, it gives residents one place to see a more complete and clear picture of how the City is combatting its challenges.

Another one of the mayoral priorities is affordable housing. Home prices have jumped 78% since 2011 in Charleston—an unsurprising trend for a City with a 25% population increase since 2010 and more than 7 million visitors each year.

HousingStat allowed Charleston officials to develop a 10-year comprehensive plan to improve housing. To eliminate affordability gaps by 2030, the City learned that it needs more than 16,000 affordable units. HousingStat has also led to new programs, such as a Senior Homeowner Initiative, that has already helped 18 seniors become first-time homeowners. Regularly disaggregated data has helped the City allocate resources where they are needed most and develop more targeted strategies.

“We’ve been able to cut red tape on affordable housing initiatives. This is the largest, most ambitious affordable and workforce housing initiative in our city’s history.”

John Tecklenburg, Mayor

The City is clear that PriorityStat is still a work in progress. Two more dashboards are on the docket for 2024: one for mobility and transportation, and the other for neighborhood livability and resident quality of life. While these are being built, the City is actively seeking feedback and encouraging residents to watch public meetings on Charleston’s YouTube page.

PriorityStat is a performance management grand slam for the City. But more importantly it’s a win for residents. An unwieldy and unorganized performance management dashboard isn’t a platform that performs for residents. Charleston’s PriorityStat is different: by embedding accountability, transparency and collaboration into the fabric of the City’s strategic goals, residents know the City is making strides with them in mind.

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San Francisco, California, USA

San Francisco: Building Stronger Neighborhoods and a Data-Fluent City Hall.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communications, Environment, Health & Wellness, High-Performing Government

At a Glance

Since becoming one of the first local governments in the country to pass an open data policy in 2009, the City has continued to build on its commitment to transparency and putting data at the core of decision-making.

Surveyed 500 residents in five neighborhoods to determine and address the top concerns that have the greatest impact on the residents’ quality of life.

Implemented data skillbuilding courses for City staff resulting in each saving an average of 1.4 hours weekly — translating into $1.7 million in savings annually for the City.

San Francisco’s Fix-It Efforts

Residents of San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood gathered one evening with city staff outside the local BART train station in preparation for a Fix-It walk. The group would spend the next two hours walking around, noting problems such as street light outages or traffic congestion and developing a plan for repairs.

Judy, a Glen Park resident for 30 years, says she joined the Fix-It effort so that she could “get involved before the changes are implemented, rather than complaining about them after the fact.” That’s exactly what Fix-It Director Sandra Zuniga wants. “Doing fixes the community doesn’t want me to do is a waste of my time,” she explains.

Fix-It Director Sandra Zuniga speaks with a resident before a Fix-It walk in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood.

The late Mayor Ed Lee launched the Fix-It initiative in May 2016 as part of his Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Promise to improve the quality of life in San Francisco. Making the city a better place to live and providing more efficient government services are part of his vision for San Francisco’s open data strategy as well. Since passing an open data policy in 2009 — becoming one of the first local governments in the country to do so — the City has continued to build on its commitment to transparency and putting data at the core of decision-making.

Fix-It is a great example of how data can ensure that cities are targeting the neediest communities. Initially, Fix-It was rolled out in five pilot neighborhoods where the City received a lot of complaints. Before Mayor Lee decided to expand the program into 20 more neighborhoods, the team surveyed some 500 residents in five languages in five neighborhoods to determine the top concerns that have the greatest impact on residents’ quality of life. The team then worked with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation to map data from 311 and the San Francisco Police Department to visualize where those three concerns were most concentrated, leading to the identification of new target neighborhoods.

A handout distributed to attendees of the Glen Park Fix-It walk maps problem areas they identified during a community meeting held a few weeks prior.

In City Hall, Chief Data Officer Joy Bonaguro directs efforts to ensure that the broadest, best use of data is embedded in the City’s culture through DataSF, a team responsible for maintaining the City’s open data portal and supporting staff with data. DataSF offers a four-month engagement to departments that identify a challenge ripe for data science. Receiving the assistance is a two-way street, however, so each department must remain committed to a service change, if that’s where the data leads. The first cohort has been tackling issues that include keeping WIC-eligible women and their infants enrolled in a nutrition program and increasing eviction prevention.

Since 2014, Data Academy, a partnership between DataSF and the Controller’s Performance Unit, has grown from a handful of workshops on data visualization to nearly 20 courses on behavioral economics, information design, lean process mapping, and more. The goal, according to Bonaguro, is to “empower staff with the data skills that help them thrive.” In turn, they’re helping the City thrive as well. By March 2017, more than 1,700 city staff had attended training, and by taking what they’ve learned back to their teams, they are each saving an average of 1.4 hours weekly — translating into $1.7 million in savings annually for the City.

The City’s Performance Director, Peg Stevenson, notes that increasing staff capacity has prompted employees to help each other to problem-solve. There’s another ripple effect as well: policymakers are more frequently asking for data, and there are clear benefits for residents, too.

As the City continues to apply data to efforts promoting “real-time democracy on the ground,” as Bonaguro describes Fix-It, residents like Judy are showing up and demanding it.

She may just be starting to see the presence of Fix-It in her neighborhood, but Judy already seems to have a hunch that the effect of small fixes can really add up.

“It’s these little things that make your life good or bad,” she says.

Read more about San Francisco’s data journey here.

“Data helps people better understand what they should be expecting from the government.”

Deputy Chief of Staff of the Mayor Kate Howard

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San Diego, California, USA

San Diego: Customizing its Own Portal and Building a Smart City.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Environment, High-Performing Government, Infrastructure, Technology, Transportation

At a Glance

Utilized an open source code to automate the publication of data sets to staff and residents in real time, saving time, resources, and reducing the potential for human error.

Created an app to allow residents to more efficiently report complaints and track progress by the response crews.

Relied on data to prioritize road repairs and how to time them with other infrastructure improvements, such as replacing water or sewer lines, to maximize efficiency.

Making Data Transparent

The City of San Diego has its own way of getting things done. While many of the cities leading the way in data-driven governance have been at this work for years, San Diego was a late bloomer. Most of the City’s open data efforts began in 2014, as Mayor Kevin Faulconer was taking office. Since then, Mayor Faulconer has created a Performance & Analytics Department, and the work has taken off. The City passed an open data policy and, soon after, hired Chief Data Officer Maksim Pecherskiy to begin implementing it.

After coming on board, Pecherskiy’s first order of business was to launch the City’s open data portal, and thanks to his background in programming, he brought a fresh perspective to the task. After reviewing several vendor options, he found that none allowed him to realize his vision. So, he set out to build his own, basing it on an open source project developed in Philadelphia. The portal, which only costs the City around $7 a month to host, launched with an initial 44 data sets voted on by the public for priority release.

Pecherskiy has also leaned on open source code to automate the publication of data sets to the portal. Most cities, he explains, have to publish data sets internally and then externally via distinct processes that can consume between 10 and 20 staff hours per month. But Pecherskiy has made it so that any public data sets automatically publish in both locations, saving time as well as reducing the potential for human error. Staff receive daily email digests with the most updated data, and residents gain access to new data sets nearly in real time. Pecherskiy says there’s also the potential to tie the automation to performance by triggering emails to management when data falls below a certain level.

San Diego also took an unconventional approach to starting its 311 program. The City has never had a designated call center for complaints, so residents often resorted to calling 911 or a non-emergency police number, but the latter was also answered by emergency operators. A resident satisfaction survey showed that 80% of San Diegans didn’t even want to make phone calls to report problems, so the City bypassed the traditional 311 model altogether and went straight to launching its Get It Done app. “We didn’t want to create a new call center that would likely become obsolete in the near future just because that’s how cities have always done it,” says Almis Udrys, Deputy Chief of Staff for Innovation & Policy.

After learning that 80% of San Diegans didn’t want to make phone calls to report problems, the City bypassed the traditional 311 model altogether and went straight to launching its Get It Done app.

Using Get It Done, residents can now report and track progress on a variety of complaints directly from their mobile phones, and response crews are closing the loop by sending “after” photos to residents, who can rate their experience with a thumbs up, thumbs down, or a comment. The app is helping the City become more efficient, too. Before the launch, paperwork for a resolved complaint might sit on a desk for weeks before being reflected in the data, meaning departments couldn’t track how quickly they were responding to issues. Get It Done data is also helping the City in other ways, such as identifying sanitation hazards while partnering with the County to address a recent outbreak of hepatitis A.

The City has applied its newfound data prowess to Mayor Faulconer’s doubled investment in road repairs and ambitious goal to fix 1,000 miles of road by 2020. “I think infrastructure is the ticking time bomb in most cities today,” says Udrys. “Our mayor is really getting out ahead of the problem.” By using data to prioritize repairs and time them with other infrastructure improvements, such as replacing water or sewer lines, the City is ahead of target, and residents can see the progress for themselves on the StreetsSDportal.

By using data to prioritize repairs and time them with other infrastructure improvements, the City is ahead of target on its goal to fix 1,000 miles of road in five years.

Across the City, the world’s largest Internet of Things platform is being rolled out through the installation of street lamps equipped with “smart” technology, part of a partnership with General Electric. Staff can monitor outages and adjust the brightness of the lights remotely, at the same time that sensors in the lamps are providing invaluable data. By monitoring pollution levels, the lamps can help the City better advance its Climate Action Plan, which calls for eliminating half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the City and aims for all electricity used in the city to be from renewable sources by 2035. The sensors will also help the City more effectively monitor parking spot usage, traffic patterns, pedestrian safety, and more.

Street lamps equipped with “smart” technology help the City gather invaluable data from pollution levels to pedestrian safety.

Deputy Chief Operating Officer David Graham recently recalled seeing a young couple and their children among attendees at a demonstration of the lamps. When he asked what inspired them to come, their answer was simple: they wanted their son to be safe if they allowed him to walk to school, and data would go a long way in helping them make the choice.

“We didn’t just want to dump data out there; we wanted to put it out there in formats that people could actually utilize. The data belongs to the people, so they should be able to access it.”

Councilman Mark Kersey

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Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Phoenix is Ready for More Rapid Growth.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communications, Cross-Sector, Environment, Equity, Finance, Infrastructure, Public Safety

WWC - Gold Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance

Continually using data-driven planning and decision-making to prepare increasing temperatures and population numbers.

Crafted a narrative using date to make the case for increased funding for water infrastructure improvements, getting ahead of more costly potential future water shortages down the road.

Used automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology in garbage trucks to collect detailed data tracking pickup routes and analyzed which ways to pick up trash more efficiently, while maintaining safety.

Created HeatReady, a program that identified the highest temperatures and the lowest amount of shade cover, tracked and enabled equitable distribution of investment to support vulnerable areas exposed to extreme heat.

Rapid Growth in Phoenix

You might call it a good problem to have. Every single day between 2010 and 2019, the Phoenix metro area grew by about 200 people. Phoenix has been among the country’s fastest-growing cities for years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data — and it’s expected to double in size by 2040, up from nearly 1.7 million people right now.

“Phoenix was born to grow. For decades, since the 1950s, we have stretched our boundaries and reimagined what a modern desert city can be. And today, we are growing vertically as well. Strategic use of data has been an incredibly valuable guide as we continue to invest in infrastructure, technology, and services that ensure an equitable future for all residents.”

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego

All this rapid growth puts pressure on essential services — things like water, public safety, and waste management. Ensuring they remain reliable and accessible to all Phoenix residents takes careful planning that aligns infrastructure and services to where growing numbers of people live, work, and play. This is not a new challenge for the desert city, where the average daily high temperature is 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Phoenix’s population began taking off in the 1950s, when air conditioning became commonplace.

The city’s population isn’t the only thing on the rise, however. Climate change is pushing average temperatures higher in the Sonoran Desert, making Phoenix one of the fastest-warming cities in America. But not all residents feel the same heat. The hottest neighborhoods in Phoenix tend to correlate with lower-incomes.

With a hotter and more crowded future on the near horizon, the City of Phoenix is preparing through data-driven planning and decision-making. You can see this in how it is securing the most precious desert resource: water.

Staving Off a Drought With Data

One of Phoenix’s primary sources of water, the Colorado River, is becoming less reliable. City officials know this because they constantly forecast water availability while tracking regional demand and seasonal weather patterns, along with long-term climate change. The data doesn’t look good.

“Water is the lifeblood of any city, especially the fifth largest city in the nation located in the middle of a desert,” says Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher. “We have never taken water for granted. Continuous strategic planning throughout the decades, with data at the forefront, has allowed us to effectively manage potential supply challenges and opportunities for growth.”

With trend lines clear, city officials leveraged data to sound the alarm. Kathryn Sorensen, the Director of Phoenix Water Services, stood in front of the Phoenix City Council presenting data integrating economics, hydrology, geography and other subjects. An image of a black swan swam across the slides to underscore the possibility of a “black swan event.” Phoenix taps could run dry if the drought continued and the city remained so reliant on the Colorado River.

The Colorado River, one of Phoenix’s primary sources of water.
Photo by Mark Capurso courtesy of the City of Phoenix.

Elected officials never enjoy raising the costs of essential services. What Phoenix shows is that when the decision-makers have access to data that tell a clear story, hard decisions are made a little easier.

“Part of what we had to do to get the Council to fund big water infrastructure improvements was tell a story about what you’re getting, and why it’s worth it,” Zuercher says. In fact, by acting when it did, the Council avoided a more painful rate jump down the road, when water shortages might be imminent. “Because we started early enough with the 6 percent increase, we don’t have to do an 18 percent increase later,” he adds.

Smarter Trash Collection

Along with water, Phoenix’s rapid growth has increased demand for another basic service: trash removal.

Every 2,000 new homes typically requires a city to expand waste management services with an additional truck and worker, generally speaking. But impressively, for the past 11 years, as an additional 40,000 homes appeared in Phoenix, the city’s Public Works Department has not added one additional garbage truck, waste management worker, or increased collection fees. How did it pull this off? By using data to improve efficiency.

Using automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology in each of its garbage trucks, the city was able to collect detailed data tracking pickup routes across three months in 2019. It then analyzed those routes in search of ways to pick up trash more efficiently, while maintaining safety. Could school zones be avoided while school is in session? Could collection days for residents be strategically changed? Could dangerous left-hand turns be minimized?

AVL was implemented by the department 10+ years ago to fulfill the need of the operations team for real-time data and actionable data. In the beginning, installation of any AVL monitoring device on trucks was done using a phased approach since the collection trucks could not be taken out of service all at the same time. Nowadays, the newer solid waste trucks delivered to the city are already equipped with AVL monitoring devices and technology, per the city’s specifications.

With the help of AVL technology, the department was able to implement “New Way, Same Day” in 2012, which streamlined collections through route-balancing. “New Way, Same Day” allowed the department to collect trash and recycling containers on the same day, resulting in cost savings of about $1 million annually.

The operations team, in collaboration with the information technology and data services teams, have continuously updated and upgraded Phoenix’s AVL technology.

After diving into the geographical and logistical details, the team emerged with new collection routes that balanced safety requirements with the city’s pickup needs. This hadn’t been done since 2009 — a full 10 years prior. With strong communications about the reasons for change to both residents and the waste management workers on the ground, the department successfully updated its collection routes and systems.

Through data and efficiency, despite rapid population growth, the Public Works Department was able to maintain its monthly residential fee for trash and various waste diversion services for 11 years.

Just recently, however, the Phoenix City Council approved a rate increase to the monthly residential fee. Along with the increasing cost of providing a service, China’s stricter recycling policies, announced in 2017, greatly impacted the U.S. recycling industry resulting in a decline in Phoenix’s recycling revenue. The decline in revenue hindered Phoenix’s ability to maintain the current level of trash and recycling service it provides. But through an extensive community engagement effort to educate residents, the City Council felt confident that an increase in solid waste rates was needed to keep up with the demands of a growing metropolis.

“After more than a decade, the recent residential solid waste rate increase allows our department to maintain the same level of trash and recycling services our residents expect,” said Moreno. “We will continue to rely on good data to streamline our processes and make good decisions in managing our resources.”

Everyone Deserves Some Shade

Phoenix is the hottest major city in the United States, and it’s getting hotter. But rising temperatures threaten some residents more than others — parts of Phoenix are less hot than others due to the presence of shade and certain pavement materials.

To understand climate change’s impact on the city from an equity perspective, the city created HeatReady, a program to identify, track and respond to the dangers of urban heat. The program was funded through the Mayors Challenge, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative to help U.S. city leaders develop innovative ideas that tackle today’s toughest problems.

The first step was to gather basic data on heat across Phoenix. To do this, the city partnered with Dr. David Hondula, a professor at Arizona State University, who installed heat monitor sensors in eight locations.

“The Bloomberg Mayors Challenge really set us on course to begin coordinating all efforts to address the growing threat of rising urban temperatures in Phoenix. Data continues to guide us in identifying the areas of our city with the highest temperatures and the lowest amount of shade cover, enabling an equitable distribution of investment to support those most vulnerable to extreme heat.”

Deputy City Manager Karen Peters

Building on its long-standing partnership with Arizona State University, the city collaborated with researchers at ASU’s Urban Climate Research Center to gather and synthesize meteorological data from all across the city and install new sensors. Among the key findings: on the hottest days of the year, surface temperatures varied by up to 13 degrees between different neighborhoods, depending on greenness, shade cover, and other factors. The hottest spots were often in low-income communities. Dr. Hondula and his collaborators are now collecting long-term data in some of the city’s hottest neighborhoods to help the city track its progress over time in reducing heat inequities.

“Our partnership with the city on urban heat is a point of pride for the urban climate research community at ASU. We share the city’s desire to identify and prioritize the hottest and most vulnerable neighborhoods for future cooling investments. The opportunity to work in real-world settings also gives us unparalleled access to learn more about how the urban climate system works and how it can be improved, knowledge that we will work to translate into solutions with city and community partners.”

Arizona State University Professor Dr. David Hondula

The city plans to continue working with its partners at Arizona State University to place sensors throughout the city, and leverage data by strategically improving the built environment. For example, it will create shade in places where residents are in greatest need of walkable routes to public transit, and has begun resurfacing roads in pilot areas with lighter-colored pavement that doesn’t retain as much heat. There is potential for new buildings to be oriented to create better airflow and more shade in high-need places. The city continues to partner with non-profit agencies to offer cooling stations with free bottles of water and heat-safety information, at locations chosen based on heat data and public transit ridership.

Phoenix’s flyer on the warning signs of heat exhaustion
Source: Phoenix Summer Heat Safety.

HeatReady has just begun — the city is currently seeking additional funding for the program and planning to implement a comprehensive shade and cooling plan built from gathered data. But the program already shows a valuable way forward for cities on the frontlines of climate change. The city and Arizona State University are in the final stage of the development of a HeatReady assessment to measure a city’s “heat readiness.” Phoenix will be the pilot city to complete the assessment this year.

Read more about Phoenix’s journey here.

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Norfolk, Virginia, USA

Building Climate Resilience Through Data Infrastructure in Norfolk.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communication, Environment, Health-Wellness, High-Performing Government, Technology

WWC - Silver Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance

Developed and launched STORM, an app that displays data collected by residents and City staff during a storm event detailing flooded streets, downed power lines, and other problems.

Improved resident decision-making around flood risk by allowing them to look up their property to identify the risk of flood across their mortgage period.

Collected and analyzed data for Norfolk City Council to demonstrate which neighborhoods are in need of more local, healthy grocery options.

Data Helping Norfolk Weather the Storm

Tropical Storm Elsa battered the east coast of the United States in July 2021, slamming cities like Norfolk, Virginia with 50 m.p.h. winds and heavy rainfall. With more than 50 million people under flash flood warning, local governments sprang to work, preparing for potential damage caused by the storm. Luckily for the residents of Norfolk, the City’s long-term investment in data infrastructure prepared them well.

For cities like Norfolk, water is king. Boasting the world’s largest naval station, the City’s port and maritime areas have been an economic and cultural hub for hundreds of years. While water is a source of opportunity in Norfolk, it is also a source of challenges. With climate change bringing rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events, the coastal city is experiencing more frequent flooding. But thanks to the City’s investment in an in-house data and innovation team, CivicLab, and its robust Open Data portal, Norfolk is better equipped than most to gather real-time storm data and translate it into informed action.

Flooding in Norfolk. Image courtesy of the City of Norfolk.

“Through CivicLab, we connect employees and residents to data, create tools for analyzing this data, and catalyze exploratory work that offers new approaches to local government. Applying this approach to resilience efforts is critical to how Norfolk addresses challenges like Tropical Storm Elsa.”

CivicLab Director Peter Buryk

A Two-Pronged Strategy

Norfolk’s data-driven resilience strategy is a two-pronged approach that focuses on both residents and the City’s own flood management efforts. On the external side, IT developed and launched STORM, an app that displays data collected by residents and City staff during a storm event detailing flooded streets, downed power lines, and other problems. The data from this tool was later posted to the Open Data Portal so everyone could access it.

In March 2021, the City took its resilience efforts to the next level with the launch of the Flood Risk Learning Center. Expanding on the City’s successful TITAN application, which shows residents the flooding levels from past storm benchmarks based on the Norfolk Tide Gauge dashboard, the new Learning Center gives residents the ability to generate personalized flood risk reports based on their building address. Reports also include FEMA resources and tips to lower flood insurance costs.

Built with Civis Analytics, the Learning Center incorporates audience-specific messaging to improve resident decision-making around flood risk. By allowing people to look up their property and identify the risk of flood across their mortgage period, the information has more impact. “When you give them information like: ‘There is a 96 percent chance of 1.25 feet of flooding happening during your 30-year mortgage’ — that’s when you see the aha moment,” says Matt Simons, principal planner in the City’s Planning Department.

Part of an address-specific flood report created by the Flood Risk Learning Center. Image courtesy of the City of Norfolk.

Even during its pilot phase, the Learning Center’s improved floodplain mapping services was partially responsible for Norfolk’s increased score in FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) Community Rating System (CRS), which incentivizes communities to go beyond minimum NFIP flood management practices. The City is a top CRS community in Virginia and in the top 10 percent of cities nationwide. This increased score has translated into a 25 percent reduction in the premium for Norfolk’s flood insurance policyholders, amounting to $2.5 million in annual savings — about $200 per policyholder.

“Through the Learning Center, we are translating data to help people make improvements to their properties that reduce flood risk, buy more appropriate flood insurance plans, and save money on their existing policies,” Simons says.

The most tangible improvements made through Norfolk’s resilience strategy may be in the City’s impressive system of tide gauges. Before their installation, staff had to monitor certain areas for flood risk, driving around to visually check for rising waters. Now, every six minutes, tide gauges record a water level reading. Data flows to the Tide Gauge dashboard, helping the City determine when to close its flood gates. All of this is done remotely by staff monitoring flood risks in real-time. They’re able to efficiently dispatch crews to targeted areas for mitigation efforts and alert residents about flood risks (or actual flooding) via digital devices.

One of the City’s tide gauges. Image courtesy of the City of Norfolk.

In neighborhoods plagued by regular flooding — like Tidewater Gardens adjacent to downtown — these sensors are informing plans for new stormwater systems that incorporate more drainage systems, pump stations, and green space for rainwater absorption. All of this data is stored for long-term use, helping to inform engineers’ designs and predict water levels 36 hours out. Another benefit of the data: It helped the City and state win large grants, including a $100 million flood control project via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A Strong Foundation, Then Results

Norfolk’s data-informed resilience work is built upon the City’s long-standing commitment to building a data culture that prizes foundational practices like stakeholder engagement, open data, and performance & analytics. Starting in 2017 with guidance from What Works Cities (WWC), Norfolk developed an open data policy, formed a data leadership committee with members from across departments, and selected data champions to train others. WWC introduced the team to Sunlight Foundation, which selected Norfolk as a pilot city to expand its use of open data outside of City Hall and into the communities it serves. One example of this: For each new data set made public, the City writes a data story to help explain how the stats impact residents.

To help better organize ongoing efforts, city staff pitched the idea of an in-house data and innovation team to City Manager Larry “Chip” Filer. Filer quickly agreed to support the new group, and CivicLab was born. Since then, CivicLab’s efforts have steadily grown.

It had also applied the City’s extensive data infrastructure to address a range of challenges, such as improving Norfolk’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. CivicLab helped identify possible locations for vaccine pre-registration and mobile clinics, pinpointed census tracts with low vaccination rates and socially vulnerable populations, and tracked current vaccination rates across the City. Norfolk then successfully used this data to convince FEMA to establish a vaccine supersite in the City, leading to the administration of an additional 83,571 shots. Another example of CivicLab’s data chops in action: Its team collected and analyzed data for Norfolk City Council to demonstrate which neighborhoods are in need of more local, healthy grocery options.

“With all of this work, we aim to use data to make better decisions. Our hope is to be a living laboratory for resilience, where well-informed ideas can really take off and accelerate.”

Principal Planner Matt Simons

“Our partnership with What Works Cities helped City staff get comfortable with thinking of data as a citywide resource.”

CivicLab Program Manager Pamela Marino

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Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Minneapolis’ Data-Driven Green Cost share Program Delivers Environmental Justice.

Project Type:
Cross Sector, Economic Development, Energy, Environment, Equity, High-Performing Government

WWC - Silver Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance

Prevented more than 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere through a data-driven incentive program to help Minneapolis property owners invest in energy efficiency upgrades and other green projects.

Developed a Green Career Program to increase solar and energy-efficient jobs, economic opportunities, and awareness – particularly in underserved neighborhoods where data showed less participation in green initiatives.

Created the 4d Affordable Housing program for building owners to keep units affordable and maintain energy efficient upgrades for residents.

Minneapolis’s Efforts to Reduce Greenhouse Gasses

The City of Minneapolis has a long history of enacting progressive policies to tackle climate change. Back in 1993, it joined forces with neighboring St. Paul to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG) into the atmosphere with its Urban CO2 Project Plan. In 2012, Minneapolis set the ambitious goals of cutting GHG emissions 30 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2050.

That same year, Minneapolis took another innovative step with the creation of its Green Cost Share program. It was launched by the City’s Department of Health as an incentive-based — rather than punitive — way to reduce pollution and address climate change. The basic idea is this: The City offers matching funds to residential, commercial, and industrial property owners as an incentive to invest in energy efficiency and pollution reduction projects. The resulting improvements help the City move closer to achieving its climate change goals while also addressing public health inequities.

Data-driven performance management and open data are at the core of the Green Cost Share program — and are playing a growing role in the City overall. In recent years, Minneapolis has strengthened other foundational practices as well, including general management and data governance, all of which help in the City’s efforts to monitor and utilize relevant data. Leaders of the Green Cost Share program collect data on dollars invested, estimated lifetime energy bill savings, and pollutants reduced. And they make everything public through a dashboard presenting all the metrics.

“From how we track progress toward program goals to how we target underinvested parts of the city overdue for environmental justice, data is in many ways the engine of Green Cost Share,” says Patrick Hanlon, who runs the program as director of environmental programs for the City of Minneapolis.

The program kicked off by building partnerships with dry cleaning companies to end their use of perchloroethylene, a cleaning solvent and known toxic air pollutant that may cause asthma, birth defects, and cancer. By 2018, Minneapolis became the first city in the country to be completely “perc”-free.

A rooftop solar project incentivized by the Green Cost Share program. Image courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

That was just one program goal. By offering property owners 20 percent of project costs (up to $20,000), the Green Cost Share program has also incentivized the installation of solar arrays, insulation, high-efficiency water heaters and furnaces, and other pollution-reduction improvements across the City. The program’s specific impacts since 2013 are detailed in the dashboard: 580 projects have received match funding, saving 31.8 million kilowatt hours of energy. That’s prevented more than 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere — the equivalent of taking over 2,400 cars off the road. Combined, program recipients will be saving over $50,000,000 over the lifetime of their projects.

“Tracking and analyzing data has helped us both define and prove success, as well as course-correct as the program has evolved over the years.”

Director of Environmental Programs Patrick Hanlon

Data-Driven Course-Correcting

The Green Cost Share program’s use of data goes beyond demonstrating impact, however. To ensure the program helps improve public health measures and delivers environmental justice, staff have ramped-up efforts to engage property owners in areas of Minneapolis defined as high-need.

In 2017, program staff noticed they weren’t receiving many applications from areas designated as Green Zones. Mostly located in north and south Minneapolis, the zones were defined by community groups based on demographic, economic and public health data provided by the City. They have higher concentrations of low-income residents and communities of color, and histories of practices like redlining and lease covenants. Not coincidentally, these areas also often have high levels of pollution related to traffic and stationary pollution sources, brownfield sites, and substandard housing. The City’s Green Zone task force expressed a desire for more investment in renewables, energy efficiency, and green jobs.

With the goal of inspiring more projects in the zones and support from the mayor and City Council, the Environmental Programs team adjusted the program’s match funding formula. It began offering a 30 percent match rate of up to $30,000 to applicants in the Green Zones or Great Streets program, another revitalization program that targets areas where people of color and low-income residents are concentrated. Before 2017, only about 20 percent of program participants were environmental justice properties. Today, the figure is 58 percent.

The City of Minneapolis has developed various strategies to support economic recovery from the pandemic and address racial inequities. As part of that comprehensive approach, the Green Cost Share program matches 40 percent (up to $40,000) of the cost to rebuild properties damaged during protests last year following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked a national movement for racial justice. The program continues to look for ways to provide additional incentives, prioritize projects, and build relationships in environmental justice communities. One way it is doing this: A Green Career program launched last year in partnership with the Department of Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) that focuses on training residents in BIPOC communities for jobs with solar and energy-efficiency contractors. The City is tracking data to evaluate program outcomes.

Green Career program participants and city staff. Image courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

For all its activities and projects, the Environmental Programs team collects and analyzes data to identify areas for improvement. One need that’s emerged from analysis: a better group purchase program allowing solar developers to aggregate smaller projects like single-family homes to be submitted in bulk to both take advantage of the incentive and reduce overall project costs.

The team also received community feedback about the lack of energy-efficiency projects being done in larger apartment buildings with low-income tenants. A data analysis bore this out, so the Environmental Programs team partnered with the CPED department on its successful 4d Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing program. The 4d program, which provides incentives for building owners to keep units affordable, has successfully helped building owners make energy efficiency upgrades after they signed up for the incentives. The results were significant — Green Cost Share projects in buildings with over 1,000 tenants rose sharply, from three to 49.

“Those are the kind of opportunities that can be revealed by regular, robust project data analysis.”

Contract Manager Isaac Evans

The program is also working to obtain better demographic data about project applicants to make further progress on environmental justice goals. Applications can request (but cannot require) demographic data from applicants; the team is working to improve data sharing between city departments to supplement information and improve demographic data tracking.

“The Green Cost Share program can’t succeed in a silo and it can’t succeed without strong data practices,” Hanlon says. “To align with the City’s overarching climate and equity goals, we know we have to work hand-in-hand with colleagues across city government and residents in need. Sustained collaboration and proactive data-driven performance management are both key to success — for all City programs, really.”

“We look at this program as a way we can intentionally invest back into communities that have been discriminated against historically.”

Director of Environmental Programs Patrick Hanlon
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Miami, Florida, USA

Crowdsourced Data Boosts Miami Climate Resiliency Efforts.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Environment, Infrastructure, Technology

WWC - Silver Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance

Created an app for residents to report flooding on their streets, creating an influx of crowdsourced data that the City could act upon.

Received data from mapped geolocation spots that identified neighborhoods needing infrastructure improvements.

Accessed satellite images through Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer that guided streetscape planning and reduced runoff and flood levels.

Miami’s Weather

Given Miami’s extensive coastline and frequent tropical storms, city officials are accustomed to hearing from residents when streets flood. Yet until recently, most of the complaints they received came from people who lived close to the ocean — often in affluent communities.

That meant help was being provided unevenly. “It was like the squeaky wheel gets the attention,” says Melissa Hew, resilience programs manager in Miami’s Department of Resilience & Public Works.

But Miami’s approach to managing floodwaters and the broader impacts of climate change has changed since work began three years ago on the Miami Forever Climate Ready plan. The collaborative effort convened stakeholders and local experts to make Miami more resilient to growing threats — including more frequent and intense floods, storms, and high-heat days. A main goal of the plan, published in January 2020, is to make decisions based on data-driven assessments, including historic and crowdsourced data, to ensure a methodical and equitable approach. Another is engaging stakeholders (especially residents) and incorporating their feedback into the plan and its implementation.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez takes a close look at part of the City’s coastal infrastructure. Photo courtesy of the City of Miami.

Both of those goals have guided Miami’s partnership with ISeeChange, a company that created an app in partnership with the City to make it easy for residents to report flooding on their streets. Since it launched in July 2020, data crowdsourced through the app has been used in several ways to guide flood response and remediation efforts.

The most immediate impact involved maintenance crews. When residents report incidents through the app, the Department of Public Works can send crews out to address the flooding, which is often due to a clogged drain or other obstruction.

“Because we don’t have enough inspectors, these residents have been our eyes on the street. It’s been extremely helpful.”

Resilience Programs Manager Melissa Hew

Data received from the app is also mapped using geolocation, allowing the city to notice patterns and identify neighborhoods that require infrastructure improvements. That’s particularly important in disaster preparedness efforts, Hew notes, including capital project planning. “Having this data gives us an upper hand: We have a better idea of what’s to come,” she says. “We know what the flooding will look like, and we know the type of infrastructure we need to put in place,” such as stormwater systems.

“We didn’t hear as much from the folks inland, even though they tend to be equally if not more affected by climate hazards.”

Resilience Programs Manager Melissa Hew

A Community Engagement Upgrade

When the City released its stormwater master plan last year, the app also came in handy on the stakeholder engagement front. In addition to in-person meetings where residents could point out flood-prone areas on a map, the app offered another touchpoint to ask community members what they were experiencing and collect their feedback.

“We went to the community to see if the forecasting models were validated by what the residents were seeing,” Hew says.

A Miami Department of Resilience & Public Works employee works on a stormwater project. Photo courtesy of the City of Miami.

The app also guides the Department of Resilience & Public Works’ outreach efforts. It doesn’t reach all Miami residents, since some lack access to reliable internet access or have limited English proficiency. (A Spanish-language version of the app is also available.) But by seeing which neighborhoods have low levels of engagement in the app, Hew and her colleagues can tell their community managers to focus in-person efforts in those areas.

“It’s not a total loss when we are not able to engage with them digitally. It highlights a different form of engagement we need to initiate.”

Resilience Programs Manager Melissa Hew

Her department utilizes data beyond the ISeeChange app as well. Through a pilot with Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer, the team has access to satellite images that detail Miami’s tree canopy. That is more granular data than the City has ever had, says Alissa Farina, who is also a resilience programs manager in the resilience department. She anticipates it will guide streetscape planning moving forward; trees can help reduce runoff and flood levels by absorbing water.

The hope is to pull together in one place all the data the City receives about how climate change affects residents. In addition to the app, residents can also provide information through email and 311. The larger goal is a central, GIS-based database that all city departments can access and pull from, Farina says. This resource would be maintained by the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), which leads Miami’s data-related efforts, and help improve capital project planning, emergency management, and implementation of climate-related programs, among other things.

With the effects of climate change likely to intensify in the coming decades, the stakes are high for Miami’s resiliency efforts. But the City’s commitment to foundational data-driven practices, especially stakeholder engagement and data governance, is already yielding clear benefits.

“Being serious about resilience means being serious about data-driven assessments and decision-making, in my view. We’re in the early stages of this effort, but we’ve already developed invaluable new ways of gathering, analyzing and acting on data. As a city on the frontlines of climate change, there’s no time to waste.”

CIO & Director of DoIT Michael Sarasti

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Gilbert, Arizona, USA

Innovating On the Fly: Gilbert Embraces Change During COVID-19.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communications, Environment, Equity, Finance, High-Performing Government, Infrastructure

WWC - Gold Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance

The open data portal increased community engagement by sharing up-to-date information on safety measures during COVID-19, growth and development for small businesses, transportation options, and conducting surveys about parks and recreation services.

Engaged the community to ensure that they stayed informed and up to date on community needs by utilizing the data received through surveys to drive decision-making for current and new programs.

Launched a business recovery program using feedback received from residents to support businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic. The program offered recovery grants, low-interest loans, and technical assistance programs to help both employers and potential employees.

How Open Data Helps Build Connections

aWhen the mayor of Gilbert, Arizona decided to hop into a DeLorean and belt out tunes “Carpool Karaoke”-style in a “Back to the Future”-themed YouTube video early last year, it was for more than just laughs. Gilbert officials were trying to get residents comfortable with receiving communications through the City’s social media channels.

In Gilbert, a sun-drenched city of more than 250,000 residents whose average age is 33, innovation, stakeholder engagement, and data-driven solutions have become top priorities. The pandemic underscored why. Whether helping small businesses survive or staff adjust to a new work-from-home normal, the City was able to quickly move into action. Its ability to do so in part stemmed from a strong data foundation built in recent years across Gilbert, located in the same “Valley of the Sun” as Phoenix. The City’s open data culture and infrastructure, as well as data governance and stakeholder engagement practices, were all in place prior to COVID-19. When the crisis hit, staff knew what data they had—as well as what quantitative and qualitative data they needed—to make effective decisions.

Its approach to distributing more than $9 million in hardship grants to local businesses struggling to survive the pandemic is a case in point. The City’s first step was to survey business owners to identify urgent needs and determine aid program priorities. With so many people shopping from home, business owners asked for funds to launch things like digital ordering systems and to obtain social media training.

Local business Bergies Coffee Roast House received a COVID-19 hardship grant from the City. Image courtesy of the City of Gilbert.

“We used surveys to guide what kind of help would be best,” says Jennifer Graves, Gilbert’s deputy director of economic development. The responses ended up helping over 450 businesses in Gilbert receive grants allocated from federal CARES Act funds. Any member of the public could find out how those dollars were being spent; Gilbert demonstrated its commitment to transparency by launching a dashboard that tracked funding allocations to local businesses, nonprofits, and other categories.

Moreover, staff were able to leverage their open data training to quickly expand Gilbert’s robust Open Data Portal resources in ways that helped local businesses weather the crisis. In April 2020, just weeks after the COVID-19 lockdown began, Gilbert’s Office of Digital Government launched Help Gilbert. The crowdsourced portal allowed businesses to share information about their COVID-19 procedures and amended hours and services with residents via an interactive map showing what stores were open and how to support them. Nonprofits also began using the tool to recruit volunteers, and residents also contributed information to help each other find essential goods.

Screenshot of the Help Gilbert portal. Image courtesy of the City of Gilbert.

Launched as a feature of the City’s 311 app, the portal was in part successful because of many residents’ knowledge of the app, which involved crowdsourced local info and an interactive map. To build interest in the new mobile app in 2017, the City had engaged residents by creating a holiday lights map and inviting people to share photos showcasing their decorated homes. That encouraged downloads and familiarity with the tool, so there was less education needed when the pandemic hit and Help Gilbert quickly launched.

“That’s our strategy with communication-related tools: Engage people in fun ways so they learn something. When the important stuff comes up, they already have the knowledge and familiarity.”

Gilbert Data & Technology Analyst Derek Konofalski

Brave New WFH World

Like so many local businesses, Gilbert’s government had to transform operations during the lockdown. The City’s staff of about 1,600 had to learn how to work from home, for starters. Weeks after that shift occurred, Gilbert’s Office of Digital Government began evaluating how the new normal was going with the goal of helping employees adapt. In late April, it launched a survey to determine people’s frustration and needs across all departments. As with its approach to distributing hardship grants, the City took a data-first approach, gathering information from stakeholders to guide decisions.

One big pain point for many teams: People missed their office printers—they could no longer just print out public-facing materials, like fliers and catalogs. Berchman saw an opportunity to help departments make a lasting pivot to digital. Her team launched “innovation hours,” a drop-in virtual gathering where staff could come and discuss their struggles and triumphs as newly minted remote workers. Those sessions helped teams that didn’t do much printing to share their experiences, giving staff who had been hesitant to stop printing a chance to see another way.

Screenshot from an “innovation hour” attended by members of Gilbert’s Fire and Rescue Department. Image courtesy of the City of Gilbert.

Most notably, the Parks and Recreation office moved its catalog to a digital-first format. The shift ended up delighting staff, who could easily update classes and cancel events with the touch of a button. More importantly, it provided the City’s many young digital-savvy residents with content in a format they clearly prefer, Berchman says. It was time for city services to evolve.

The digital government team took another survey of staff last fall, drawing on results to determine whether and how staff should return to the office. Some, including the digital government team, may remain fully remote or work partly remote and partly in-person.

The key to success in all of Gilbert’s change efforts—whether involving technology, open data practices, or stakeholder engagement—has been the openness of leaders and department staff to experimentation and change. When the pandemic hit, this data-oriented culture was ready to meet the moment with the help of a data storyteller, a data content strategist, and a digital engagement coordinator on the team. In the coming years, as Gilbert embarks on a data-driven strategic planning process to prepare for its next 100 years, that culture will likely deepen.

“It’s been amazing to watch the City build its data foundation and normalize stakeholder- and data-driven decision-making in recent years,” says Berchman, who helped create the Office of Digital Government more than nine years ago.

“All of that work helped us get through the pandemic—and will surely help us respond to future challenges.”

Gilbert Chief Digital Officer Dana Berchman

“We wanted to gather data from people who were in the trenches. We wanted to ask people what they really thought before making an assumption.”

Gilbert Chief Digital Officer Dana Berchman

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Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Fort Collins Adapts to Drier Climate with Data-Driven Solutions.

Project Type:
Community Engagement, Communications, Environment, Equity, Finance, High-Performing Government, Infrastructure

WWC - Silver Certification Badge for year 2021

At a Glance

Saved nearly 40 million gallons of water by implementing a monitoring system that measures hourly water usage and allows customers and contractors to track their water usage.

Utilizes data to identify residents who could benefit from the City’s home energy efficiency program. This data helps facilitate easier communication between city officials and residents, both can reach out to another to share information.

Residents help city staff develop and evaluate budget proposals using an outcomes-based rubric. The city solicits participation through the city’s budget website, where residents can read documents, watch videos, and participate in surveys and online forums.

Tackling Big Challenges

ears of historic drought have exacted a heavy toll across the western U.S., from devastating wildfires to shrinking reservoirs. With extreme heat and dryness expected to be the new normal for years to come across the region, governments have no choice but to adapt. In more and more areas, water management has become an innovation challenge: How can cities learn to live with less?

The City of Fort Collins has a history of tackling big challenges, like developing renewable energy technologies and next-generation rechargeable batteries. Recognized in 2015 by the Smithsonian Institute as a place of innovation, and home to high-tech startups and Colorado State University, Fort Collins views ingenuity as part of its DNA.

No surprise, then, that city officials have stepped up to the challenge of 21st century water management with data-driven innovations that creatively engage and empower residents to be part of solutions. This work has flowed out of Fort Collins’ steady investment in building staff comfort and skill with foundational practices including data governance, performance and analytics, and stakeholder engagement. The City treats data as a strategic asset that can yield actionable insights and meaningfully engage the public.

“When you have a robust data program, and data is easily accessible to both staff and residents, it becomes much easier to determine how finite city resources can be used to tackle issues such as water conservation.”

Fort Collins Deputy Director of Information & Employee Services Tyler Marr

Sharing Data to Save Water

The City’s Landscape Water Budget and Leak Alerts programs showcase how combining the right technology platforms with open data practices and performance analytics can deliver real results.

Prior to launching the Landscape Water Budget program, Fort Collins conducted commercial irrigation audits. Staff from Fort Collins Utilities, which manages the City’s water supply, would assess properties and make irrigation improvement suggestions. But many customers would request an assessment each year without having implemented the City’s previous water-saving advice. City staff often would find themselves stuck between the customer (who owns or rents the land) and a landscaping contractor in charge of irrigation.

A city staff member meeting with a Landscape Water Budget program participant. Image courtesy of the City of Fort Collins.

So the City overhauled its approach. Using hourly water usage data drawn from its new Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system, Fort Collins Utilities began providing suggested water-use budgets to both customers and contractors during initial on-site consultations. Customers can access their water accounts detailing suggested and actual usage 24/7 via the MyWater portal, developed in partnership with the WaterSmart data analytics platform.

Screenshot from the MyWater portal showing outdoor water usage. Image courtesy of the City of Fort Collins.

The overarching idea was to give end users useful insights into how they can conserve water and empower them to make adjustments without city involvement. “Fundamentally, we are better off when we can build conversations with customers and the broader community that are based in transparency, visibility, and engagement,” says John Phelan, energy services senior manager at Fort Collins Utilities.

Since launching in 2018, the Landscape Budget program has reduced water use by an estimated 73 million gallons. This represents about 1 percent of the City’s total annual treated water use. Over the same period, the number of participants — many are homeowners’ associations and customers with landscapes that cover millions of square feet — has doubled from 40 to 80.

The MyWater portal also provides individual household customers with general water use information and comparisons to similar homes. The AMI system can automatically flag continuous water use, so Fort Collins Utilities decided to use this feature to enhance its system for alerting customers about suspected leaks. On the MyWater dashboard, a household can sign up for the Leak Alerts program and select a preferred communication method. The system will send text message or email notifications if continuous water use is sensed for a 24-hour period. Previously, the City would call a customer or mail a letter if it suspected a leak.

An automatic alert message sent via the Leak Alerts program. Image courtesy of the City of Fort Collins.

Since 2017, the City has sent more than 13,300 Leak Alert notifications. Because it can now reach more customers faster and resolve leaks more quickly, the results are dramatic: an increase in estimated annual water savings from two million gallons prior to 2017 to 40 million gallons in recent years.

Fort Collins residents participating in the Leak Alert program can provide feedback to Utilities, including detailing the cause of a leak and whether it has been fixed.

Data from both the Leak Alerts and Landscape Water Budget programs are tracked by Fort Collins’ customized database known as “Bertha,” which supports the City’s big utilities goals: high-quality service and efficient resource management. (Fort Collins Utilities also manages stormwater, wastewater, and electricity.) Staff designed the database system to collect and organize data from all utility services across the City, helping staff address a range of challenges.

For example, city officials have analyzed utility data to identify residential properties that could benefit from the City’s home energy efficiency retrofit program, and then engaged those customers. And during the pandemic, staff pulled data from Bertha to identify residents who had fallen behind on payments and then reached out to them to share information about utilities payment assistance resources.

“Data helps us make better decisions as a city and helps the residents of Fort Collins make better decisions.”

Fort Collins Interim Deputy Director of Water Resources & Treatment Utilities Liesel Hans

Budgeting by and for the People

Data governance, metrics-driven performance management, and stakeholder engagement is evident in Fort Collins’ budgeting approach as well. The City operates a robust public engagement process. In the months leading up to submission of the biennial budget proposal to the City Council, residents can visit a budget website to read budget documents, watch videos, and participate in surveys and online forums. The feedback is considered by staff as they develop the official budget proposal.

The City’s Budgeting for Outcomes process, which prioritizes budget requests to aid decision-making, also serves to increase community participation. Fort Collins’ budget is broken into seven outcomes, each tied to specific performance metrics. For example, in the Neighborhood Livability & Social Health outcome, a key metric is Voluntary Code Compliance, which tracks city efforts to educate neighbors on city ordinances and codes. Through the budget engagement and feedback tools, residents can rank their priority outcomes, as well as which objectives should be prioritized within each outcome area.

The Budget 2021 site garnered participation from over 3,250 unique participants, despite the unprecedented year that was 2020. The Budget 2022 site is expected to have even greater engagement.

“It’s really exciting to see the process work,” shares Lawrence Pollack, Fort Collins’ budget director.

Going forward, Pollack’s team will advance its budgeting process through its Equity Indicators Project. Working with community leaders, officials will look at various equity indicators across the City to focus budget offers on actions that can help close racial and economic disparities.

“Every budget request now has to answer how it advances equity in Fort Collins so that we really embed this work throughout the budget process.”

Fort Collins Budget Director Lawrence Pollack

By intentionally engaging more diverse members of the community, Pollack and his team are hoping to get more actionable and meaningful information from residents. “We don’t want to just hear the vocal majority,” Pollack says. “The differentiation of voices is really important in this work.”

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Boulder, Colorado, USA

Bold Goals, No Silos: The City of Boulder Unlocks the Power of Data.

Project Type:
Communications, Cross-Sector Collaboration, Environment, Equity, Health & Environment, High-Performing Government, Infrastructure, Public Safety

At a Glance

Data helped the city maintain its goal to reduce its organizational emissions and will continue to encourage the city to optimize machine-learning models that will save costs and minimize environmental impacts.

Created a live dashboard using 911 call data that helps firefighters use real-time insight into emergency trends and improves service delivery.

Boulder partnered with local artists to stage a data-driven art exhibit to increase community awareness of Boulder’s open data work. They turned data files into colorful art installations that helped residents visualize data in a unique way and drove interest in the city’s data transparency efforts.

Incorporated new data practices during COVID-19 to evaluate efforts in reducing racial inequities, reviewing demographic data in infection and hospitalization rates, employment, basic needs assistance programs, evictions, and foreclosures.

Bringing Fun Into Environmental Justice

Every summer, hundreds of people gather on the banks of Boulder Creek to commute to work in unconventional fashion: by inner tube. The annual “Tube to Work Day” is a challenge to the community to leave cars behind and lower greenhouse gas emissions — and an invitation to have fun. Some participants dress in full business attire as they ride the leisurely stream into downtown Boulder, Colorado.

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

The city takes pride in the event, which is quintessential Boulder: quirky and environmentally conscious. Located at the edge of the Rocky Mountains and home to the University of Colorado Boulder, the city has emerged as a green tech startup powerhouse.

People aren’t afraid to boldly tackle big challenges through innovation — something easy to see in Boulder’s climate initiatives. The city government’s goal is to reduce its emissions 80 percent below 2008 levels by 2030. As of now, it’s achieved a 38 percent reduction and is proud to lead the way in making its buildings more efficient and powering its services with local solar generation.

Building a Culture of Innovation by Failing Fast

Boulder’s spirit of goal-setting and data-driven performance management infuses far more than its work around climate, though. The city created the chief innovation and analytics officer role in 2016 and hired Julia Richman to spearhead a culture of data-driven innovation across the government. Julia and her Innovation and Technology team pushed city departments to pilot new data-based approaches without fear of failure.

“Their team’s work established the core principles of data and innovation work in the city, and we continue to push those boundaries today,” said Jennifer Douglas, the city’s current chief innovation and technology officer. “The ‘fail fast’ culture that is prevalent in many innovation-driven industries is working its way into government decision-making. By anticipating where problems might occur and allowing an iterative process, we can minimize risks, reduce costs, and ensure that the services we’re providing are aligned with our community’s needs.”

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

Transparency has been a big part of culture change. Silos have been broken down: Today, 90 percent of the city’s departments have publicly available open data sets and collaborate on data-driven performance management. With the assistance of What Works Cities partner the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University (GovEx), the city created Boulder Measures — a community dashboard that connects the community to relevant data. Using data to inform decisions about what’s working and what can be improved is Boulder’s modus operandi.

Treating Water with AI

Recent innovations at the city’s wastewater treatment facility are a great example of how the use of data spans departments. Currently, over 12 million gallons of water come through Boulder’s sewer system every day, where it passes through the Boulder Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF) before entering Boulder Creek.

Ensuring treated water meets environmental and public health standards is a vital and complex process. Two WRRF employees — Wastewater Treatment Manager Chris Douville and Treatment Process Engineer Christopher Marks — were determined to make it more energy-efficient.

Typical water treatment facilities run a microbiological system using dissolved oxygen control of aeration to clean water. The WRRF team, working with the Colorado School of Mines and Carollo Engineers, Inc., tested an ammonia-based aeration control strategy that has become more common in recent years. They optimized its performance, then worked to improve upon its reaction time by forecasting the ammonia concentration. But first they needed an immense amount of data. To track things like water temperature, flow rates, nutrients and oxygen levels, they utilized measurement probes already installed for monitoring along every step of the treatment process. After crunching the numbers, the team created a hybrid statistical machine learning model that could predict ammonia concentrations 50 minutes in advance.

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

The team hopes this forecasting approach — which is 90 percent accurate — will cut down on the amount of energy used in the future and minimize financial and environmental impacts. The team’s efforts have already reduced energy consumption at the facility and saved an estimated 500,000kWh valued around $15,000.

This work with the city by Colorado School of Mines and Carollo Engineers, Inc. is shining in many areas. It earned first place in the 2019 Intelligent Water Systems Challenge and was published in the Journal of Water Process Engineering in 2020 to share the method with other utilities that may benefit from the work.

Creating this innovative model didn’t happen overnight though. It required a willingness to experiment and multiple iterations over two years that included failures and setbacks to reach this kind of success. “It’s alright though,” said Marks. “This is the Boulder way — we took 10 well thought out steps, rather than one giant leap, and always worked together collaboratively with the whole WRRF team.”

“This is the Boulder way — we took 10 well thought out steps, rather than one giant leap, and always worked together collaboratively with the whole WRRF team.”

Boulder Treatment Process Engineer Christopher Marks

Fighting Fires with Data

The city’s culture of a data-first approach can also be seen across town in the fire department. With Boulder nestled against the Flatirons and Boulder Creek running through downtown, the city is prone to flooding. As a result, one of the city’s fire stations was located on a 100-year floodplain and officials knew it had to be relocated. But where exactly? A data analysis of previous call data helped the fire department determine the station’s new home.

Department staff worked with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) to review three years-worth of emergency calls and identify where firefighting and emergency services could be most effectively repositioned. The goals were to boost service delivery to a part of the city lacking an industry-standard four-minute response time, while decreasing call volume to the other stations. Construction of the new station should be complete in 2020 and the city hopes the station will also double as a community meeting space.

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

But the department’s smart data practices go much deeper than this standalone project. The fire department’s new data dashboard gives firefighters valuable real-time insights into fire trends around the city, supporting better prevention strategies and improved service delivery.

In October 2019, before the dashboard was created, there were hundreds of Fire Incident Reports outstanding — meaning data from these reports hadn’t been entered into the department’s database. Without more timely data from those reports the department was missing opportunities to see important patterns in the locations of fires or types of calls for service being received.

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

Now, with data entry streamlined and the new dashboard live, the number of outstanding reports is down to 30. Insights can be gleaned, and lives and property can be better protected across the city.

“This dashboard really helps us go a step further and create a culture of performance measurement,” said Wendy Korotkin, project manager for data and analytics for the Boulder Fire Department.

“When we are problem-solving based on data specific to us, we’re able to more effectively respond to our community’s needs and ensure the highest standard of public safety.”

Boulder Fire Department Project Manager for Data & Analytics Wendy Korotkin

Equity in Boulder’s COVID-19 Response

Racial disparities in the impacts of COVID-19 have affected communities across the United States, but in Boulder, the city is ensuring that data drives its response. Based on city and Boulder County data, Hispanic and Latinx community members are experiencing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations at a higher rate than the white population. Latinx, Black, and Asian community members experienced COVID-19 related job loss at a rate higher than white community members. As with other health and economic disparities, the causes of these disparities are likely to be embedded in systemic bias and disenfranchisement.

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

“Our work is rooted in closing these gaps, so that race does not predict one’s ability to thrive,” said Aimee Kane, the city’s equity program manager. “To lift up people of color and support those who are unjustly burdened, we need clear benchmarks to show our progress — or lack thereof — so that we can effectively do this work.”

As part of the city’s COVID-19 response and recovery planning, staff worked to determine which data could and should be collected to measure whether our activities successfully reduced racial inequities. The following data sets could help Boulder and other cities gauge the rate of recovery from the pandemic, by demographic:

  • COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations
  • Job loss, employment and type of employment
  • Basic needs assistance program requests and enrollments
  • Type of business re-opened
  • Evictions and foreclosures
  • Types of 911 calls and other crisis interventions

The city is working with local, state and federal partners to respond, while its ongoing equity and engagement efforts prioritize working directly with those most negatively impacted to ensure city efforts align with community needs.

For example, informed in part by engagement methods tested during the city’s 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge project, the city created a team of Emergency Response Connectors to help distribute information across the diverse cultures in Boulder. These connectors are trusted voices within its neighborhoods who share COVID-19 information, educate about community resources, and document concerns raised by neighbors.

Engaging the Public Creatively

Boulder has made many areas of data public in recent years. The Innovation and Technology Department has been committed to an open data strategy that engages the public in the interest of transparency, accountability and empowerment. The city has now published over 110 data sets on its open data catalog, many of which are updated daily.

But after reviewing download rates early on, the team realized there was a lack of community awareness of Boulder’s open data work. To spark more interest, they decided to partner with local artists to stage an art exhibit inspired by city data. The 2018 exhibit, led by the city’s Open Data Manager, Nicolia Eldred-Skemp, turned CSV data files into colorful art installations, visualizing everything from prairie dog populations, to historic weather patterns, to how community members perceive their safety.

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

“People are used to seeing data in graphs and charts, and this exhibit was a really unique, wonderful way to share this information,” said Eldred-Skemp. “I think it helped bridge some gaps and drive interest from a wider audience, while also giving people a sense of community and involvement with the city.”

The project was a collaboration between the City of Boulder’s Innovation and Technology Department, the City Manager’s Office, and the Boulder Public Library, and the idea was inspired by Kansas City, Missouri’s successful Art of Data exhibit.

Image Courtesy of the City of Boulder.

By the end of the exhibit, the public perception and awareness around Boulder’s open data work had gone up. There was a 113 percent increase in unique page views of the open data catalog during the three-month installation. The city also established stronger relationships with local community organizations like Code for Boulder and the University of Colorado at Boulder as a result of the exhibit collaborations — and hopes to build on this success with an even larger exhibit in the future.

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