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Effective use of existing data can help improve our cities services

Many civic leaders are facing budget cuts whilst needing to maintain aging city infrastructures.

By Rashik Parmar . 25 June 2014

Many civic leaders are facing budget cuts whilst needing to maintain aging city infrastructures. They struggle with having an inadequate supply of information, but in many cases the data is already there. Their challenge is to apply the right information and begin to use it more effectively to optimise and transform their services.

Effective use of existing data can help improve our cities servicesMany have long thought of information technology simply as a way to store and manage data about citizens and businesses in order to comply with legislation and service obligations. However, IT becomes much more useful when it is used to inform and direct better decision-making.

For most cities, outcome-based projects don’t start with technology. They start with a goal. Then the city and outside advisors work to study data and apply analytics that will deliver the desired result. With careful consideration, this information can help identify opportunities for business growth and service optimisation. A number of cities and other government bodies around the globe have already started to adopt outcomes-based technology plans, with impressive results.  

In Madrid, Spain, city leaders concluded that the city needed to respond to emergencies faster, both to improve survival chances for injured citizens and to limit the disruption of normal life. By creating a technologically unified system to analyse data and video and coordinate response and restoration, Madrid cut emergency response time by 25%. The new system also assures that central managers can respond to multiple, complex situations simultaneously.

In Georgia's Flint River basin, USA, environmentalists wanted to keep the river level from dropping so low that fish couldn’t survive during a lengthy drought.  By analysing rainfall records and Agriculture Department data on irrigation, they discovered that farmers using wells for irrigation water were lowering the water table and reducing run-off that normally fed the river system.  Working with Agriculture Department specialists, the environmental agency created a system for turning off specific nozzles on the 1,000 foot-long pivot sprayers that farmers use to irrigate their fields. That let them avoid wasting water and fertiliser in unplanted, low-lying wet spots.  As farmers adopted the systems and controlled the sprayers precisely, they were able to reduce water use by 30%.

Most local governments confront a range of different issues. And all of them have too few resources to cope with every problem. But by focusing resources on their biggest single issue, they can make a difference. In one city it may be delivering clean water to all residents. In another it may be lowering school dropout rates.  In a third it may be the incidence of crime. In another it may be grid-locked traffic.  

Many political leaders today are much more comfortable with information technology than their predecessors, but while their predecessors were reluctant to engage on the specifics of information technology, today’s leaders engage not on the technology, but on how it can be applied to produce successful results.   As leading CIOs increasingly leverage technology for such benefit, they are more often seen as a critical element of solving business, rather than technical problems.

Today, much data exists but it isn’t applied to solve the problem.  Or it may be collected for general statistical purposes, without being recorded in real-time. What is often missing is a real-time or near real-time perspective of an issue, providing meaningful new insight. Coupled with appropriate baselines measures, cities are finding the way to use data to make management decisions which can dramatically change those baselines. Historically, it was hard won experience that gave successful executives the confidence to make strategic decisions for their public or private sector organisation. That approach is fast giving way to prerequisite empirical data to reduce risk. “Gut feel” is fast being superseded by fact based decision making.  

Management specialists have long preached that whatever businesses measure can be improved. If a factory counts accidents, safety will improve. If it measures defective products, quality will improve. In local government, the trick is often to figure out what to measure. Individual departments are often focused on their own needs. But they may have data that can be used to improve outcomes if it is just collected and shared.

The first step for many city leaders is to make a commitment to solving their most important problems, and there are many. They can then use data to help them get there. It is an area generating intense excitement and already rewarding leaders. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of smarter cities is that we are only now beginning to scratch the surface.

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