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Local Government

Dallas Mayoral Candidates Are Overlooking One of the City’s Most Important Issues

It's data, and it hasn't been on anyone's radar during the mayor's race.
courtesy of TheMap
Dallas-Fort Worth is the fourth-largest metro area in the United States, behind only New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The previous mayors of those three cities all had one priority initiative in common the day they were elected: Data.

I’ve been to several of the Dallas mayoral debates. I have read quotes and listened to podcasts. I have not heard data mentioned once. I’ve heard a lot about potholes, pensions, police, and power. Those things are massively important, but the foundation of the choices made on those issues needs to be grounded in an analysis of where our resources should go. That can’t be done without a solid data infrastructure that empowers our elected officials to make valuable real-time decisions. Now let’s compare how much of a priority data was in America’s only metro areas that have more people than we do.


From Beyond Transparency:
During the mayoral campaign, Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel had held an event at Microsoft that highlighted the importance of open government, citing open data at the heart of his vision for a more transparent Chicago… The new administration started on May 16, 2011, with open data as a top priority from day one. Once the new administration came on board with a clear mandate from Mayoral Emanuel to make open data a priority, the city’s open data program began to immediately change.

New York

From The Responsive City:
In New York City, Michael Bloomberg took office as mayor after long years of experience in the use of data, and he created a metrics-driven mayoralty. Agencies agreed to cooperate to set up his proposed data analytics center and other interagency data initiatives. Yet almost all of them soon asserted legal, technical, and operational obstacles to full participation. Budget experts also pushed back, worried about costs. Lawyers cited vast numbers of rules (most from the federal government) that prohibited sharing of data. Within each city agency, its chief information officer would explain how only he or she could manage the complex legacy databases of that unit. Despite his mandate, his commitment to data, and a raft of first-rate appointees, Bloomberg would not have succeeded in making New York City a leader in data-driven government had he not pushed hard from the top for change.

Los Angeles

Eric Garcetti was elected on June 1, 2013. Here is a release from December of that same year:
In the five years since, Los Angeles has now become “the American city most adept at using data to improve its residents’ lives.”

Dallas is eight years behind those other cities.

Worse, there is no visible effort to establish the same type of scaled infrastructure here. It is difficult to articulate the massive importance of making this a priority. But I will try: a pothole is a tangible thing, a property tax bill is a tangible thing, watching a City Council member get thrown in jail is immediate, if not tangible. Data are more mercurial.

It’s an invisible buzzword that you hear in IBM commercials, but it’s just a fancy word for information. It provides a better way for governments to communicate with citizens. Did that pothole next to my house get filled? Is my DART bus going to be late? Is there going to be a street cut on a route next to my house to fix a sewage line? Where can I vote? What am I being taxed for? And where is that money going and why?

The city can set goals, and residents can see progress being made in real-time by seeing the data.

I can do this in Chicago. I can literally make a map of every pothole patched in Chicago yesterday. I can see what streets were congested. I can do this in L.A. I can look at every parking meter that’s currently occupied in L.A. right now. I can do this in New York City. I can tell you which streets are currently undergoing construction today. I can tell you how many of their bikeshare bikes are currently being used at this very moment. I can tell you how many kids attended each school in NYC yesterday! I can do it without writing an email, without picking up the phone. I can do it without having to pay a dime or wait a second. Without a built-in, process-oriented approach to data collection and dissemination, there is no way for citizens to know valuable information.

Removing that friction is critical, even within one organization — such as the city of Dallas — where departments often make data requests that can take weeks to process despite originating in the same building. Sometimes they even charge themselves money. Spreadsheets are sitting on administrator’s desktops and in file drawers; they are neither open nor online.

Bloomberg blazed the path we should follow:
Harnessing and understanding data helped us decide how to allocate resources more efficiently and effectively, which allowed us to improve the delivery of services — from protecting children and fighting crime to repairing potholes and inspecting buildings — while also saving taxpayer money.

The century old framework of local government — centralized, compartmentalized bureaucracies that jealously guard information and adhere to strict work rules — is frustrating and disappointing its constituents, whose trust in government is at an all time low.

Because they can collect, analyze, and share information so efficiently, these technologies push both government and its constituents to focus on results rather than compliance.

How do we implement this here?

The good news is we’ve started. We have an open data portal. We have a performance dashboard. We have excellent crime data, 311 data, and other valuable data sets. But there is so much more information collected that can be disseminated—and must be done in a format other than PDFs or web maps that have no export function. All data should be opened in a machine readable format, as the federal government has recently mandated. You should be able to analyze the data sets in Microsoft Excel, to search for patterns and trends. It’s time to have a data-oriented approach built into the fabric of day-to-day operations in every department and across the entire region.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Michael Bloomberg

I believe the new mayor needs to create a new regional organization like OpenDataPhilly, where several groups across the region share data openly with each other. Most of our agencies are independent of each other (Dallas ISD, DART, Dallas County, Dallas Housing Authority, the North Central Texas Council of Governments). The city should take responsibility for all aspects of its residents’ lives by increasing collaboration across agencies. We can stop treating education and housing like they’re unrelated, that jobs and transportation aren’t dependent on each other, like access to food is separate from access to healthcare, like code compliance of sickly apartments has nothing to do with attendance at schools.

We have hundreds of nonprofits, funders, and volunteers in the city trying to make life better for our residents, and all of them could benefit from data coming from our public organizations. Building permits can help identify gentrification and displacement, traffic counts from NCTCOG can be valuable in our thoroughfare plan, vouchers given by DHA can help guide the city’s housing policy. School attendance numbers from DISD can be correlated with restaurant health inspection scores. Hospital data can help us design a proper scooter ordinance. DART could be publishing its ridership information through an open data portal (just use the city’s? — as MTA does in Chicago) so we can analyze and better understand access to jobs. This transparency can also root out corruption in City Hall by giving journalists and others information on where money is going and why. Data should drive our decisions, not politics.

Our government agencies are siloed, but our residents’ lives are not. We all have to eat, house ourselves, use transportation networks, visit businesses, request city services, pay taxes, have jobs, be healthy, and educate ourselves and our kids. We use the hospital systems, courts, jails, and government facilities. It’s time we brought all of this data together in real time to understand which of our needs are being met and which are not.

It’s not just people who work at the city that can help contribute to our wellbeing. As Mayor Garcetti states:
Open Data empowers Angelenos to participate in governance with greater understanding and impact. Opening government data to entrepreneurs and businesses promotes innovation by putting that information to work in ways outside the expertise of government institutions and gives companies, individuals, and nonprofit organizations the opportunity to leverage one of government’s greatest assets: public information. Most significantly, it fosters creative new thinking about solving our most intractable challenges through public-private partnerships and promoting a culture of data sharing between our own City departments and other civic resources.

How did they do this?

Strong leadership and persistence.


From Beyond Transparency:
In the beginning of 2013, the mayor decided that he wanted to make a policy commitment to ensure the sustainability of the program. He issued an Open Data Executive Order (2012–2) that mandated that each department would designate an Open Data Coordinator, the city would create and sustain the position of Chief Data Officer and there would be annual accountability as to the release of open data for transparency and sustainability.

In order for an open data program to be truly successful, it requires two key items that are, in fact, also a broader lesson for many government initiatives. The first is the clear and vocal support of the executive sponsor — whether this is the president for the federal program or, in the case of Chicago, the mayor. With the unequivocal support of the mayor, roadblocks disappeared as it became clear that all parties would be accountable for the success — or lack thereof — of the program.

In New York, from The Responsive City:
Ironically, the passage to a much more open and fluid kind of governance will require determined leadership from the top of old hierarchies in order to break down the calcified systems that cities have inherited from the late 1800s.

We also highlight the drivers of that transformation—organizational change to remove hierarchies and bureaucracies; the sharing of data in forms that make it understandable and useful to people in government and outside it; and, perhaps most important, leadership. Leadership is essential because the new type of public servant we describe must break down three barriers to progress that business-as-usual bureaucratic government imposes.

We need strong leadership to bring this about. We need a mayor to champion this mindset.

A city is an organism. All of its parts work together to function properly. Data make up the heart and blood flowing through our city. If a doctor did heart surgery without attaching data sensors to the patient’s body and something went wrong, the patient would be dead before they knew what was happening. Let’s not do the same with our city.

Robert Mundinger maintains a database of all sorts of interesting things at, as well as a Medium page where he breaks down trends he’s seen in the data. You should follow both.