Moving Cities Beyond Performance Measurement

This analysis is a guest post from The American Cities Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts. It originally appeared here

performance measurement graph depictionA recent report on performance management from the National League of Cities suggested that officials work with employees in city departments to identify which performance metrics to use, and that cities measure both outcomes (long-term impact) and outputs (actions taken or completed). (violetkaipa/Getty Images)

The recent explosion in the availability of data is changing the way Americans make decisions and do business in fields as diverse as sports, public health, shopping, and politics. The business of government is no exception. At the local level, new methods of collecting and analyzing information have varied and far-reaching effects on the ability of leaders to understand and work within their fiscal constraints and meet residents’ needs.

Local governments have used performance measurement—collecting and studying data with the aim of improving operating efficiency and effectiveness—for decades, but today’s cities have access to a wealth of other data. Those on the cutting edge are using these data with new analytical tools in innovative ways that often reach beyond the conventional definition of performance measurement. For example, the New York City Fire Department compiles information from various city departments about building characteristics—such as construction material, fireproofing, height, date of construction, and last inspection date—to prioritize buildings for inspections. Boston uses a cellphone app, called Street Bump, to help detect potholes using the accelerometers built into cellphones.

What’s new, beyond the sheer volume of data, to help governments improve?

  • Local governments previously examined statistics only within individual departments. Today, they are gleaning new insights by combining data across agencies.
  • Government officials typically reviewed performance statistics only periodically—annually, semiannually, or quarterly. Now they often have access to usable data in real time, allowing them to be more responsive and efficient.
  • In the past, cities primarily used analytics to understand past events. Today, some are exploring predictive analytics, using data to anticipate occurrences and outcomes.

As local governments continue to operate under fiscal restraints after the Great Recession (as recent Pew Charitable Trusts research found), data and analytics offer cities a critically important way to stretch limited dollars and improve services. Cities today, in the words of one Boston official, need to be ambidextrous organizations that can collect trash, teach kids, and enforce laws today but also innovate and learn to do better tomorrow.

This analysis looks at some of the innovative ways in which cities are using new tools and technologies and considers some of the challenges they face in using data effectively.

Using data in new ways

The huge quantities of data now available to governments present opportunities for cities seeking to improve services while cutting costs.

In an interview with Pew researchers, Jeff Tryens, a former New York City deputy director for performance management, noted that “performance measures are only one place to look for the data that you need to improve whatever it is you’re doing.”  He pointed to New York’s efforts to figure out which restaurants were dumping cooking oil into sewers and clogging pipes across the city. Instead of sending inspectors out to try to catch perpetrators in the act, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics compared a list of restaurants that have grease-hauling contracts with the locations of sewer blockages—information from unrelated city departments that had not been connected before—to determine which restaurants were most likely to be dumping grease.

Tryens said these data sources didn’t shed much light until city personnel figured out how to effectively cross-reference them. “The rest of the fun stuff was doing lots of analytics to try and figure out what was going on which caused that performance measure to underperform,” he said. City inspectors eventually issued violations on 95 percent of the targets on the suspect list, according to the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. The increased enforcement led to a decrease in sewer blockages and to savings on inspection and remediation.

Other cities around the country are also using data and analysis in innovative ways:

  • Boston’s Problem Properties Task Force identifies and responds to “problem properties,” which are nuisance buildings and/or vacant lots with persistent criminal activities and code violations. Four substantiated complaints within a 12-month period can land a property on the city’s list of such properties and result in fines and other enforcement actions. The task force analyzes trends using data points from various city departments—including 25-month crime statistics by neighborhood or police district and top-10 address lists for code violations—to predict which properties are at risk for further problems. It then works with landlords to address complaints and violations promptly. In the first two years of the task force’s operation, 275 properties were identified as potential problems. Of those, 58 were listed as problem properties, 44 of which have been remedied and removed from the list. An additional 39 cases were resolved before they were officially classified as problems. Calls to 911 about properties designated for crime-related issues fell by about 70 percent after the cases were deemed resolved.
  • Detroit collects information about response times, medical emergencies, calls for assistance, and other matters from the Fire Department, computer-aided dispatch, 911 dispatch, geographic information system, and other records through FireView Dashboard, a real-time tracking system. City officials use the information to allocate resources for the Fire Department, estimate response times, and plan community outreach. Budget cuts have forced the department to temporarily shut down some fire companies on a rolling basis to save on overtime costs, but the city had little information about how the brownouts would affect response times. One city official told Pew, “To get a response time would be to get two light-duty personnel to go through boxes of written reports and get a calculator to average out the response times.” The new system has helped the department determine which fire companies to brown out at what times to minimize the impact on response times, improving services for residents while maximizing city resources.
  • Las Vegas is using a system known as the Park Asset Data Collection and Data Conversion Program (ParkPAD) to track and measure the city’s park system, cutting costs while improving services for residents. The system stores quantitative data and maps for all park amenities, including benches, restrooms, trees, soil, sod, and hundreds of other components. Previously, the city had to pay for staff time to assess the needs before work could begin. For example, if a park needed new sod, the city would send an employee to the park with a surveyor’s wheel to measure the area needing replacement. Today, using ParkPAD’s digital maps and measurements, the city can determine how much sod it needs within minutes, saving hours of manual labor and improving accuracy.

Using data effectively

For local officials hoping to make real and ongoing improvements to government operations, collecting and analyzing data are just the beginning.

Speaking at a recent National League of Cities conference, Rick Cole, deputy mayor for budget and innovation in Los Angeles, said cities should use data to identify potential problems, understand why they are happening, and find solutions. “It’s not the numbers. It’s what you do with the numbers,” he told the audience in Austin, Texas.

Cole advised city officials to check data frequently and make adjustments to operations as necessary to improve performance. In addition, he encouraged leaders to foster a culture among municipal employees that prioritizes innovation and enhancement rather than placing blame, noting that punitive environments inevitably lead to a temptation to “cook the books.”

Whether deliberate or accidental, inaccurate information can lead to flawed decision-making. In New York City, numbers showing a dramatic drop in violence at Rikers Island were found to be faulty, omitting hundreds of inmate fights. Two officials at the facility were promoted based on the erroneous figures. City investigators subsequently concluded in a confidential report that the numbers were inaccurate and recommended that the officials be demoted—one has since retired—according to The New York Times.

Determining which measures are meaningful in assessing government performance can also pose challenges. A recent report on performance management from the National League of Cities explored the issues through interviews with staff from cities across the country. Two frequently offered suggestions: that officials work with employees in city departments to identify which performance metrics to use and that cities measure both outcomes (long-term impact) and outputs (actions taken or completed). The NLC report notes that selection of the most appropriate metrics is often an iterative process, requiring adjustments over time to ensure the best results.

When done correctly, performance metric selection leads municipal leaders to think about the broader questions of whom they are trying to serve and how. Cole gave the example of libraries: Twenty years ago, libraries might have been judged on how many books were checked out. Today, they serve many other purposes, such as providing a safe place for children to go after school and serving as a resource for adults looking for jobs. Because of this evolution, the performance of a modern library requires new metrics.

Conclusion

New data and analytics offer local leaders the opportunity to provide better, more efficient services even as budgets remain tight.

Stephen Goldsmith, a professor of the practice of government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a former two-term mayor of Indianapolis, called the potential for cities to improve performance using data and analytics “enormous and unlimited.”

“We are at a point in time where the tools that allow us to drive performance exceed the application of those tools,” Goldsmith said. “It’s not technology that’s holding us back; it’s the conceptualization of how you use the tools in a practical way.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts provided generous funding support for NLC’s performance management guidebook

LED Street Lights: Energy Savings Likely to Outweigh Initial Costs for These Three Cities

LED streetlights on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in MinnesotaLED streetlights, such as those found on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., can provide better visibility while reducing emissions and cutting cities’ energy bills by more than 60%. (Joe Ferrer/Getty Images)

Nearly every boulevard, avenue, road or side street in America is lined with opportunities to reduce energy consumption and save important municipal dollars. Street lights in the United States are estimated to use as much energy as six million households, and the energy bills cost local governments more than $10 billion per year.

Due to recent advances of LED and other solid state lighting options, modern streetlights have the potential to cut those figures by 50% or more.

This is why the Obama Administration has challenged mayors around the country to retrofit their lights and install modern, high efficiency lighting. The Presidential Challenge for Advanced Outdoor Lighting sets a goal of upgrading at least 1.5 million poles by May 2016, tripling the previous goal to upgrade 500,000.

The challenge is backed by extensive resources in the Better Buildings Outdoor Lighting Accelerator, which contains financial calculators, case studies, and more. The Solid State Street Lighting Consortium, a DOE-managed peer group of cities pursuing lighting upgrades, also has technical specifications and market reports to help cities through the procurement process.

Thanks to early adopters like Raleigh, Los Angeles and Seattle, many of the concerns surrounding technical issues and public acceptance have been debunked in the last few years, illuminating the path for others to follow. Costs for both energy use and maintenance have proven lower under the new systems. In surveys conducted for the city of Seattle, more than 85% of respondents approved of the new lights.

For many city leaders, though, the decision isn’t quite that clear. As with any major retrofit, the upfront capital cost can be daunting. Los Angeles, for example, has replaced more than 140,000 lights in four years, yielding an annual savings of more than 60%. Even with a payback period estimated at just seven years, the initial cost has been reported to be $57 million. Given the constraints on local budgets, it can be difficult to justify a costly upgrade for a system that is already functioning.

Additionally, some city officials may be waiting to see if those installation costs continue to drop before they convert. Between 2011 and 2013, the cost of new LED streetlights fell an estimated 50%. Even then, the price was four times that of high-pressure sodium lights. In the short term, waiting may result in further savings and an even more efficient LED product.

Nonetheless, the takeaway is overwhelmingly positive. A tipping point seems to have been reached as the rate of adoption accelerates. If the President’s challenge is met, and the 1.5 million poles achieve the same efficiency and CO2 reductions as Los Angeles, it will create a reduction of more than 369,000 tons of emissions each year.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Open Data Is Finally Making A Dent In Cities

This post originally appeared on Fast Company’s Co.Exist blog.

Chicago-StOpen data can help you find your lost dog, make your commute more efficient, and make government more transparent – if cities will let it. (Getty Images)

What is the best way to get from 12th Street to Main, and should I take the subway, a bike, or rideshare? How many lobbyists are there in my city and more importantly, what are they doing? And, by the way, where did my dog go?

All of these questions and more can now be answered in cities as a result of open data. Beyond just its functional use for an increasingly app-dependent society, data collection and analysis is powering and redefining how we think about ourselves and how we interact with others, in almost every part of life. From who we date, to who we share our commute with to work, a whole new world is being created through access to useful, usable information.

As with a range of leading issues, cities are at the vanguard of this shifting environment. Through increased measurement, analysis, and engagement, open data will further solidify the centrality of cities.

In Chicago, the voice of the mayor counts for a lot. And Mayor Emmanuel has been at the forefront in supporting and encouraging open data in the city, resulting in a strong open government community. The city has more than 600 datasets online, and has seen millions of page views on its data portal. The public benefits have accrued widely with civic initiatives like Chicagolobbyists.org, as well as with a myriad of other open data led endeavors.

Transparency is one of the great promises of open data. Petitioning the government is a fundamental tenet of democracy and many government relations’ professionals perform this task brilliantly. At the same time that transparency is good for the city, it’s good for citizens and democracy. Through the advent of Chicagolobbyists.org, anyone can now see how many lobbyists are in the city, how much they are spending, who they are talking to, and when it is happening.

Throughout the country, we are seeing data driven sites and apps like this that engage citizens, enhance services, and provide a rich understanding of government operations In Austin, a grassroots movement has formed with advocacy organization Open Austin. Through hackathons and other opportunities, citizens are getting involved, services are improving, and businesses are being built.

Data can even find your dog, reducing the number of stray animals being sheltered, with Stray Mapper. The site has a simple map-based web portal where you can type in whether you are missing a dog or cat, when you lost them, and where. That information is then plugged into the data being collected by the city on stray animals. This project, developed by a Code for America brigade team, helps the city improve its rate of returning pets to owners.

It’s not only animals that get lost or at least can’t find the best way home. I’ve found myself in that situation too. Thanks to Ridescout, incubated in Washington, D.C., at 1776, I have been able to easily find the best way home. Through the use of open data available from both cities and the Department of Transportation, Ridescout created an app that is an intuitive mobility tool. By showing me all of the available options from transit to ridesharing to my own two feet, it frequently helps me get from place to place in the city. It looks like it wasn’t just me that found this app to be handy; Daimler recently acquired Ridescout as the auto giant continues its own expansion into the data driven mobility space.

We are a data driven society, from the private sector where consumer data drives the bottom line to the public sector where more and more outputs are being quantified and analyzed. New businesses are being created and existing firms are growing as companies use open data to build products that improve the lives of people living in and visiting cities. In whatever city you are in, data is a tool to make lives easier, create more robust two-way communications between the governing and governed, and increase and improve commerce.

In the National League of Cities’ newly released report, City Open Data Policies: Learning by Doing, we sought to find out what cities are currently doing with open data and what they could be doing far into the future. Working together with our partners at American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy, this publication is a resource for cities developing open data policies.

By opening data, cities are developing an unprecedented portal into the operations and functioning of government for the use of and to the benefit of community members, the private sector, and open government advocates. Enhanced data analysis and increased open data availability also allows us to envision a future where city services are radically transformed, leading toward a seamlessness of operations from city government to resident delivery. This forward momentum further reinforces that data has become the infrastructural backbone in the century of the city.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the author:Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

Local Governments Win Cell Tower Supreme Court Case – For the Most Part

cell towerThe City of Roswell lost its case before the Supreme Court regarding cell phone tower approval on what some might describe as a mere technicality – but overall, local governments won. (Getty Images)

In T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell, the Supreme Court held 6-3 that the Telecommunications Act (TCA) requires local governments to provide reasons when denying an application to build a cell phone tower. The reasons do not have to be stated in the denial letter but must be articulated “with sufficient clarity in some other written record issued essentially contemporaneously with the denial,” which can include the council meeting minutes.

The Court agreed with the position in the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC)’s amicus brief that the reasons for a local government’s decision need not be in the same letter or document that denies the application, and that council meeting minutes can be a sufficient source for the reasons for the denial. The Court disagreed, however, with the SLLC’s argument that the council minutes need not be issued contemporaneously with the document denying the wireless provider’s application.

T-Mobile applied to construct a 108-foot cell tower in a residential zoning area. Two days after a council hearing on the application, where city councilmembers voted to deny the application and stated various reasons for why they were going to vote against it, Roswell sent T-Mobile a brief letter stating that the application was denied and that T-Mobile could obtain hearing minutes from the city clerk. Twenty-six days later the minutes were approved and published.

The TCA requires that a state or local government’s decision denying a cell tower construction permit be “in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record.”

The majority of the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, held that local governments have to provide reasons for why they are denying a cell tower application so that courts can determine whether the denial was supported by substantial evidence. The Court rejected, however, T-Mobile’s argument that the reasons must be set forth in a formal written decision denying the application instead of council meeting minutes because nothing in the TCA “imposes any requirement that the reasons be given in any particular form.” But the Court also held that, because wireless providers have only 30 days after an adverse decision to seek judicial review, the council meeting minutes setting forth the reasons have to be issued “essentially contemporaneous[ly]”with the denial.

The Court’s ruling that written minutes can meet the TCA’s “in writing” requirement is favorable to local governments, many of which routinely compile meeting minutes regardless of whether a cell tower application is being considered. But the Court’s requirement that a local government issue a denial letter and minutes at more or less the same time will be new to many local governments, and, as Chief Justice Roberts points out in his dissenting opinion, “could be a trap for the unwary hamlet or two.”

Following this decision, local governments should not issue any written denial of a wireless siting application until they (1) set forth the reasons for the denial in that written decision, or (2) make available to the wireless provider the final council meeting minutes or transcript of the meeting at which the action was taken.

The Roberts’ Court has been frequently characterized as “pro-business.” Justice Roberts’ dissent belies that viewpoint.  His opinion repeatedly refers to T-Mobile’s savvy and culminates in this sarcastic assessment of how T-Mobile likely suffered no harm by receiving the minutes after the denial: “T-Mobile somehow managed to make the tough call to seek review of the denial of an application it had spent months and many thousands of dollars to obtain, based on a hearing it had attended.”

Tim LayJessica Bell, and Katharine Mapes of Spiegel & McDiarmid in Washington, D.C., wrote the SLLC’s brief which was joined by the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors,  the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Citizen Engagement Means More than Just Voting

citizen-engagement-blog

Democracy. In the very root of the word is the notion that it is the people who rule. It is engrained in all Americans that in our country, government is by the people and for the people. Of course, for this to be true, the people must be involved. Citizens must be actively engaged in every level of government if our country is to run as we believe it should.

In recent studies by the National Conference on Citizenship, it has unfortunately been discovered that this ideal is not being met. Citizens are not showing the levels of civic engagement that democracy requires, and that our cities need in order to flourish.

In one study on South Carolina, it was found that while the state’s citizens ranked highly for “traditional forms of political involvement” (voting in national elections and registering to vote), they were near the bottom of state rankings in other, more subtle forms of civic engagement: boycotting products, contacting elected officials, forming strong relationships with neighbors, discussing politics and participating in local meetings regarding matters of school or city policy.

In a separate study looking at Washington, D.C., the findings again made clear that just because members of a community vote, there is no guarantee that they are then engaged in the community in other ways. While residents of D.C. have consistently high rates of voter turnout, they are unlikely to have strong relationships with neighbors, rarely eat dinner with other members of their household and while they volunteer at rates higher than the national average (coming in at 32.2%), this still quite low compared to the number of voters.

Between the two studies, it was found that political and civic engagement, in almost any form, is strongly correlated to not only a person’s income, but also to their level of education. While the studies referenced here look at fairly large population areas (the state of South Carolina as a whole and the city of D.C.), in cities with higher numbers of low-income residents with lower levels of educational attainment, there are clear reasons for concern. As elected officials, it can be challenging enough to work with the many different voices that arrive at the table; it is next to impossible to work with the voices that cannot even be found.

Given that a strong community is one that works on behalf of all its residents, it is imperative that citizens from all walks of life exercise their right to be both civically and politically engaged. As new technology is being developed, it is becoming easier than ever to encourage citizens to raise their voice. Emerging apps allow citizens to express needs for city services in real-time and allow elected officials to engage with residents who might never step foot in City Hall.

textizen-blog

In Washington, D.C., the website “Grade D.C.” has been developed as a way for residents to provide feedback on the quality of city services and departments, from the public school system to the police department to the Department of Employee Services. In allowing the community to assign a grade to the work being done by government-run entities, not only do citizens have a voice to express their appreciation and frustrations, but they are able to see the feedback provided by others, and use that to make informed decisions as to the city agencies with which they choose to interact. By establishing this innovative online format to provide feedback to the city, leaders in D.C. have created a non-threatening way to engage with citizens who may not be willing to go to City Hall, yet have a vested interest in ensuring that city services are provided smoothly and effectively.

In Philadelphia, a similar desire to engage citizens led to the creation of the tool “Textizen,” as one piece of the New Urban Mechanics movement. Now being used in both Boston and Philadelphia, Textizen permits residents to text in their thoughts and opinions on any and all city projects, dramatically increasing the number of voices that are able to be heard on any one issue. Taking this concept a step further, Boston has developed the “Citizens Connect TXT” program, which gives anyone in the city a way to notify the city of local problems, from graffiti in public spaces to unlit streetlights and other safety hazards. In providing a simple way for citizens to contact their local government, these cities are actively encouraging civic engagement on the part of all

As members of the National League of Cities push to see their cities become centers of innovation, it is important to remember the necessity of including all citizens in this push forward. This is by no means a simple job, yet cities around the country are showing that they are able to rise to meet the challenge by thinking outside of the box and truly valuing the many different voices in their communities. When city officials intentionally choose to harness the powers of technology, the ideals of democracy come closer to being achieved, even in a world that has changed immeasurably since our nation was founded.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University.

Cell Tower Siting “In Writing” Requirement: Not What it Seems?

supreme-court-prayer-t

In T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell the Supreme Court will decide whether a letter denying a cell tower construction application that doesn’t explain the reasons for the denial meets the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA) “in writing” requirement.

T-Mobile applied to construct a 108-foot cell tower in an area zoned single-family residential.  The City of Roswell’s ordinance only allowed “alternative tower structures” in such a zone that were compatible with “the natural setting and surrounding structures.”  T-Mobile proposed an “alternative tower structure” in the shape of a man-made tree that would be about 25-feet taller than the pine trees surrounding it.

After a hearing, where city council members stated various reasons for why they were going to vote against the application, Roswell sent T-Mobile a brief letter saying the application was denied and that T-Mobile could obtain hearing minutes from the city clerk.

The TCA requires that a state or local government’s decision denying a cell tower construction permit be “in writing.”  The district court and other circuit courts have held that the TCA requires a written decision and a written record that explain why the city council’s majority rejected the application.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed relying on a plain reading of the statute.  The TCA doesn’t say that “the decision [must] be ‘in a separate writing’ or in a ‘writing separate from the transcript of the hearing and the minutes of the meeting in which the hearing was held’ or ‘in a single writing that itself contains all of the grounds and explanations for the decision.’”

So, you might ask…why would the Court that decided whether the Affordable Care Act was constitutional resolve a seemingly trifling issue like what “in writing” means?  Well, the majority of the cases the Supreme Court accepts involve circuit splits where federal courts have ruled differently on the exact same issue.  Circuit splits arise in cases important and mundane and involve issues big and small.

And the impact of T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell on local governments should not necessarily be underestimated.  First, the remedy for failing to meet the “in writing” requirement isn’t a do over—it is a granting of the permit.  Second, meeting the “in writing” requirement as T-Mobile would have it might be harder than you think.  Particularly in a small town, the person preparing the denial likely will not be a sophisticated telecom lawyer who understands the intricacies of the Telecommunications Act.

The State and Local Legal Center will file an amicus brief in this case supporting Roswell.

Soronen_Pic (2)

About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Open Data: A New Tool for Building Climate Resilience

This post was written by C. Forbes Tompkins and Christina DeConcini of the World Resources Institute (WRI). The post originally appeared on WRI’s blog.

Res-Blog

As communities across America continue to experience increasing climate impacts in the form of rising seas, heat waves, and extreme weather, local and federal leaders are starting to roll up their sleeves. Yesterday, the White House unveiled the Climate Data Initiative, a project aimed at arming local leaders across the country with information they need to plan for climate impacts while building more resilience. The initiative provides a key tool for helping those at the frontlines of climate change—America’s local communities.

The Climate Data Initiative delivers on a key element of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced last June. This new initiative creates an online hub of government data on climate impacts, giving local communities a detailed look at how a warmer world may impact their critical infrastructure like bridges, roads, and canals.

The initial phase will focus on providing data and tools related to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, and later phases will include information addressing other climate-related impacts. This release of comprehensive government data will be supported by additional efforts from the philanthropic and private sectors.

Google, for example, has committed to donate significant cloud computing and storage and to work with partners to create a near real-time system to monitor drought throughout the continental United States. Intel, Microsoft, and ESRI will create various maps, apps, and other tools and programs to help local officials and other stakeholders understand the climate risks specific to their communities.

Local Communities Are at the Frontlines of Climate Change

The initiative could be an important step in preparing the country for the impacts of climate change. From coastal towns in Southeast Florida to the world’s largest naval base in Hampton Roads, VA, local communities are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise and other dangerous effects of climate change.

Indeed, climate change is already impacting virtually every community throughout the country—and these effects are poised to worsen with every degree of warming. Consider the following:

  • The world has now experienced 348 consecutive months where average global monthly temperatures were above the 20th century average. In other words, no one younger than 29 years old has lived a month of their lives where monthly temperatures were at or below average.
  • Scientists have found that the conditions leading to the 2011 Texas drought are 20 times more likely to occur now than in the 1960s due to human-induced climate change.
  • Sea-level rise has given a springboard for storm surge and coastal flooding that has amplified the impact of coastal storms, like Hurricane Sandy. Today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood reoccurrence has nearly doubled compared to 1950.
  • The Western United States now experiences seven times more large-scale wildfires than it did in the 1970s.
  • Extreme precipitation events have increased in every region of the United States between 1958 and 2007.

Escalating climate impacts not only threaten human well-being, they’re causing costly damages to critical infrastructure—damages that are expected to worsen in a warmer world with more frequent and intense extreme weather.

Severe weather is already the single-leading cause of power outages in the country, causing an estimated 679 widespread power outages between 2003 and 2012 and costing the economy, businesses, school systems, and emergency agencies billions of dollars.

Urban infrastructure is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. A 2007 extreme precipitation event in New York City, for example, only lasted two hours, but caused a system of transit failures that stranded 2.5 million riders. And in Miami Beach, officials say it will cost as much as $400 million to prepare the city’s drainage system for sea-level rise-induced flooding and storm surge.

The Role of Open Data in Climate Resilience

While climate change will affect all communities throughout the United States, the type of impacts felt will vary at the region-, county-, and even city-levels. Communities cannot adapt to or mitigate these impacts without first understanding exactly how they will be affected.

Open data like that provided in the Climate Data Initiative can help provide this level of information. For instance, the climate data site will offer infrastructure and geographic mapping data sets—showing specific bridges, roads, canals, etc.—and help local decision-makers understand how this infrastructure might be impacted by things like sea level rise, drought, or extreme weather. Local governments can use this current and relevant data as a basis for developing effective plans and utilizing resources.

The Climate Data Initiative builds on other work that connects federal activities with local climate action, including a Presidential Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the recent budget request for a $1 billion fund for climate resiliency. This latest initiative by the administration not only reinforces the President’s acknowledgement that climate change is occurring, but also his prioritization of empowering local governments to address the issue.

Helping localities throughout the nation become more resilient is an incredibly important piece in overcoming the climate challenge. But, as organizers of this initiative acknowledge, adaptation and resiliency strategies will need to be accompanied by comprehensive reductions in annual greenhouse gas emissions at the national and international levels. Adaptation combined with comprehensive mitigation action is the only way to ensure a sustainable future—both locally and globally.

Bright Spots in Community Engagement: Philadelphia – “Civic Fusion” at Work

This is the first post in a blog series highlighting communities that were profiled in the forthcoming Knight Foundation and NLC joint report, Bright Spots in Community Engagement. The report showcases 14 U.S. communities that are building greater civic participation and engagement from the bottom up.

“My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens.”
— Alex Hillman, Indy Hall

Philadelphia

For several decades after its industrial heyday, the City of Philadelphia suffered the steady outflow of residents, neighborhoods slowly emptying out even as the city’s prestigious universities attracted greater numbers of educated young people to the region.

This “brain drain” was severe: as recently as 2004, a study from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that fewer than 30 percent of out-of-state students that attended Philadelphia-area colleges remained in the area after graduating. They took their talents instead to New York, San Francisco, and Austin – cities with strong reputations for finance, technology, arts and culture, and entrepreneurialism.

And then this began to change – slowly, at first, and then so rapidly that by 2010, when the nonprofit Campus Philly repeated the Economy League’s study, a strong majority (61%) of out-of-state students graduating from Philadelphia colleges indicated that they had remained in the city. The decennial census showed Philadelphia’s population holding steady for the first time since 1950, but this headline figure masked a very encouraging increase of 50,000 25-34 year olds absorbed by newly fashionable neighborhoods around the business district’s perimeter.

In concert with this demographic change there has been a sustained and imaginative effort from the mayor’s office, from philanthropists such as the Knight Foundation and city boosters such as Select Greater Philadelphia and Campus Philly to engage young Philadelphians as entrepreneurs and civic leaders.

Bright spots include loosely-knit collaboratives such as “Open Access Philadelphia” (OAP), which have built the tools and relationships that help fuse young activists and entrepreneurs to the civic life of the city:

  • In 2010, joining a broad coalition that won $12 million for the city to expand broadband access, mostly through the services of existing nonprofits
  • In 2011, launching the city’s Open Data Portal during the city’s first “Tech Week” and hosting the first cohort of Code for America fellows
  • In 2012, working collaboratively with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration to issue an executive order committing the city to data sharing and hiring the city’s first Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America.

While this work has not been driven primarily by city officials, Chris Wink of Technically Philly (an organization often described as the Philadelphia tech scene’s “Rolling Stone”) embraced the city’s support: “when the people who are charged with securing the future of your city embraces innovation, it sends a message that Philadelphia is moving past the decline that has characterized it since the 1970s.”

This week, Philadelphia celebrates its third Philly Tech Week, expected to attract even greater interest than last year’s 10,000 attendees, 88 events and 40 sponsors.  Local officials will again be outside of City Hall to engage with Philadelphia’s entrepreneurs and civic-minded residents  where they live, at co-working spaces along North 3rd Street , at “unconferences” and independent businesses throughout the city.

This Philadelphia story has been a great success so far in embodying “civic fusion,” a term widely used within the city’s government and entrepreneurial technology scenes to describe the public-private efforts to bolster community engagement around technology and data sharing.

Fine-Tuning Broadband Adoption Strategies

At a Broadband Summit at the FCC last week, national experts, academics and community program leaders discussed our country’s progress on where people are when it comes to taking advantage of broadband access.  The major challenges to broadband adoption have been having access to broadband services, how and why to use that access once you have it, and cost.  Presenters at the Summit discussed their research and how they have discovered subtle nuances to these challenges based on a variety of social and economic factors and how to strategically address them.

Dr. John Horrigan, Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies talked about the state of play in 2009, when the FCC’s Broadband Task Force provided an interim report to the FCC on the National Broadband Plan.  Some of the key lessons learned in the past 4 years echo Dr. Gant’s findings that challenges are very specific to communities.  While access, digital literacy and relevance still remain barriers to adoption, there are other reasons as well.  Not all adopters are the same.  In 2008-2009, the understanding was that non-adopters tended to be older populations who didn’t see the need for it.  Since then, research has shown that most non-adopters, regardless of age, can become adopters as long as strategies to increase adoption cater to their needs.  This shows that the non-adoption problem is much more complex and requires specific, case-by-case attention.

Dr. Jon Gant from the University of Illinois, School of Library and Information Sciences talked about the importance of public and private stakeholders to jointly create strategies that are specific to community needs.  Broadband adoption solutions can’t be developed in a vacuum; success of adoption programs rely very much on what community needs are and then even drilling further down, the needs of individuals.  He discussed how day-to-day priorities for potential users—such as ensuring daily childcare or rigid job schedules—can impact how a person utilizes broadband.  As with any kind of learning and education processes, sustained practice and use is vital for increasing knowledge and development.

Community leaders understand this and are taking it into consideration as they work to bridge the digital divide in their communities.  The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has developed an online portal for veterans which is essentially a one-stop shop for information on veteran’s benefits.  The need to access this information quickly and efficiently is what is driving broadband adoption in the veteran community in Massachusetts.  The Hmong American Partnership is an organization that provides support and resources to the Hmong and other refugee communities in America.  Employment and training is their biggest department and they are working to ensure that digital literacy is built into the programs they administer to their users.  The College of Menominee Nation has deployed broadband throughout the reservation to provide access not only to students for higher education, but also to the community to create an interest in what they could do with broadband, which will then drive adoption and usage.

The broadband challenges of yesterday are still the challenges we face today.  Cost is a huge deterrent to disconnected populations realizing the value of broadband to their everyday lives.  We still face digital literacy obstacles.  What we know now, though, is that these problems can be successfully met by knowing who you are working with and understanding what their needs are.  Broadband adoption still has a way to go in this country but we are on a stronger path to ensuring we are connecting citizens to what they need to be connected to.

The Latest in Economic Development

This week’s blog discusses an innovative, localized way to fund local development projects, two regions focused on mutually beneficial cooperation, an NPR story on insourcing, and the startup culture between the coasts. Comment below or send to common@nlc.org.

Get the last edition of “The Latest in Economic Development.”

“Why couldn’t people in the community invest in real estate right next door?” This piece in the Atlantic Cities about a pair of DC real estate investors explains that the answer is actually very complicated. After purchasing a property on H St. in the District, the pair (who are also brothers) invited local residents to “invest online in… shares as small as $100, in a public offering qualified by the Securities and Exchange Commission.” But the process was complicated by SEC regulations intended to protect unaccredited investors; so complicated that the brothers went through six law firms before they found out their plan was viable. In essence, the H St. deal used a model similar to crowdfunding, which removed the need for a Wall Street middleman. This democratized the development, which, in the future, may allow for the feasibility of unique projects usually passed over by big developers. Read the whole article. It’s a very good read.

Two groups in the Midwest and Rust Belt are banding together to promote their regions. In the Midwest, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, and St. Louis are trying to promote mutual interests to create a “mini-mega-region” that can compete with larger metro areas. They are focusing on “four key areas: transportation, water, life sciences, and connecting their entrepreneurial communities.” In the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh entrepreneur Kit Mueller started RustBuilt.org hoping to link innovators within the industrial heart of America to “raise awareness of the possibilities to the nation’s coasts and around the globe.” For more on regional cooperation and economic development, check out my recent publication and corresponding blog post.

NPR recently did a piece on GE’s Alliance Park in Louisville, Ky. which explores how companies are experiencing the economic benefits of insourcing. GE found value in locating the different parts of the production chain – previously spread across different countries – to one place: “with workers in different departments physically sharing the same space… cross-interest conversations can happen more easily.” This translated to more efficient production processes without the need to cut the workforce. NPR also highlights a San Francisco hoodie company owned by Bayard Winthrop who has been more than pleased with producing his products here in the US.

It’s not a requirement that great startups be located on the coasts. Small interior cities are producing their fair share as well. In Grand Rapids, MI, Rick DeVos started a venture fund that provides small amounts of seed capital and has a Shark Tank-like system of choosing startups for additional financing. Additionally, investor Ray Moncrief “helps oversee four funds totaling $160 million… in and near Appalachia.” These funds highlight a continued focus on fostering local entrepreneurship instead of trying to land big firms. Because even though it is inevitable that some startups will flame out, “that often creates a virtuous cycle that benefits the local economy.”