Me, Newt and the Challenge of Big Data for Cities

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This post is part of a special series of blogs inspired by NLC’s annual Congress of Cities and related events such as the National Summit on Your City’s Families.

Just days into my new job with the National League of Cities, I am attending our national conference, the Congress of Cities and Exposition in Seattle. How does a newbie quickly grasp all the myriad issues facing cities and serve elected officials of larger cities whose budget is so large it dwarfs that of some countries, while at the same time serve other jurisdictions where the gas station owner functions as part-time mayor and  volunteer fire chief?  What’s my entry point?

You’d think it would be easy for someone like me: I have a Master’s in City Planning and decades ago was an (unpaid) City Commissioner for the City of Berkeley, CA. It was the only city in the country with its own foreign policy, and the likes of Country Joe McDonald and members of the original Black Panther Party used to be honored guests at City Hall. One, Eldridge Clever, was actually elected to the Council.

But I have to admit that as I headed to the airport yesterday, I was at a loss for my potential point of traction with the over 3,000 conference attendees who would be so much fluent in the language of tax incremental financing districts, pension funds and so on.  Until, that is, I entered that zen space where self-examination is forced upon all of us: the airport security screening line.

Here, I had my close encounter with the rich and famous that would crystallize my focus for the conference. Right next to me in line was Newt Gingrich.  Former Speaker of the House, architect of the first federal shutdown and now the elder statesman of the Republican Party and Sunday news talk shows. We had both entered the area where all are created equal in front of that great leveler:  the trial by persons-of-interest database.

I’ve had my fair share of experiences being surrounded by TSA sniffer dogs and wand-waving armed document-checkers. In fact, TSA frequently scrawls “selected for secondary security screening” in thick black Sharpie on my boarding pass.

Except this time I was the one who sailed through, while it was Newt who caused the drivers license-scanning machine to sound like Diana Ross with whooping cough. “Oh, really?” he deadpanned when the machine whined and beeped. “C’mon guys, this is the third time this month” he said to the TSA attendants. I sympathized with him: he was looking for answers, but all he got was procedures. I said to him “Well when someone is as well-known as you are, I guess even the machines recognize you.” He chuckled at that.

We carried on our separate ways, (somewhat) leveled, but I was left thinking about several aspects of this experience and what it might say about how the phenomenon called “Big Data” is impacting our lives. For instance, does it really make our skies any safer that someone like Newt Gingrich is held up in an airport security screening?

It gradually dawned on me that Newt had helped me find my hook on which to hang forthcoming details of my NLC conference experience.  Are cities also using the “Big Data” approach, and if so, how? To which phenomena, challenges, and services does it lend itself best? What are the trade-offs between sharing information and confidentiality? Is Big Data being harnessed to a strategic municipal plan?

Most importantly: is it “working” at the city level? Meaning, does it deliver outcomes that might not otherwise be achieved? Is it allowing greater service provision for less money and staff time, and with fewer errors?  Is any money that Big Data is helping save outweighing the money invested? Does it help cities reach underserved populations and provide them with more equal and convenient access? Is it allowing more flexible and customizable approaches to targeting and serving different types of taxpayer-customers? Can Big Data signal where the next urban crisis or peak service overload is likely to occur, and can it generate actionable data on which to base decisions to overcome the problem?

These are the questions I will be using to search for current and best city practices with Big Data in Seattle in sessions such as “Using Technology to Bolster Economic Development” on Friday at 9 am and “Engaging Residents in Solutions: Using Data and Technology to Improve Local Government” on Saturday at 9 am.