In the past, scientists looked through telescopes to make observations about the world, but now, scientists are using data to make new observations about the world.  The work done by the growing ranks of data scientists in state and local government will help shape the future and create great outcomes using data to empower open government.

That was how the SLED: Harnessing the Power of Data for Action panel at the FedScoop Public Sector Innovation Summit was introduced. Panel members included Tony Fung, Deputy Secretary of Technology, Commonwealth of Virginia; Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, Chief Analytics Officer, City of New York; Jim Smith, CIO, State of Maine; and Archana Vemulapalli, CTO, District of Columbia.

The group shared some of the innovative programs that state and local governments have implemented recently and discussed how data analytics play a vital role in making those projects successful. Dr. Mashariki shared several examples of how breaking down siloes and pooling data for analyzation has helped the City of New York better understand its 9-1-1 response times and helped protect tenants from unfair practices by landlords.

Dr. Mashariki leads the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MONDA), whose goal is to help agencies realize efficiencies and capabilities using data and analytics. He has found that agencies are eager to learn about how to use data to solve community problems. In the case of 9-1-1, different agencies across the city – health, safety, enforcement, etc. – now share information about when calls are received, how quickly they are responded to, etc.

“From the time the person hits the last 1 to when the responder replies, there are all kinds of things going on that used to be saved in different databases,” he explained. “What people don’t realize is that eight different people at eight different times might call about the same emergency to different agencies, such as the police department, the fire department, etc. With data sharing, we can implement [a]probabilistic… algorithm to match all of that data and better understand response times and report them to our citizens.”

Another example he shared had to do with rent stabilization and tenant harassment. New York City’s rent stabilization policy means that if you rented an apartment for $200 a month in the 1980s, your rent has not changed. When new owners come in, they sometimes harass existing tenants to try to get them to move so they can lease the apartment at a higher monthly rate.

“In the past, we didn’t have access to information about rent stabilized apartments. We found out that one of the city’s agencies was actually collecting it. Then, we were able to use that and compare it to other analytics, such as when a building was purchased and the rate – if any – of harassment reports (such as noisy maintenance being done at ‘ungodly’ hours) from residents after the purchase.”

“The power in the data is hidden – it is in what we call data ‘landfills,’ but now we have the ability to go scavenging, tie it all together and understand it much more thoroughly,” he said. “Two very high-profile arrests of landlords have come out of this program.”

This type of data sharing and breaking down of data siloes is critical to innovation for government agencies. As Fung noted, by opening up data between agencies, the Commonwealth of Virginia can use these larger data sets across the board. “When you break down siloes between agencies, you can better understand the return on investment your programs bring to your agencies and to constituents,” Fung said. “We are working with several groups, including the University of Virginia and the Data Science Institute to integrate information from education, labor, etc. to learn more about programs and the value they are driving.”

In addition to sharing data with each other, each panelist talked about the importance of then sharing data and findings from analysis with their constituents and the need to secure that data. As Vemulapalli said, “In DC, we are consciously trying to set up government as an enabler and convener of data. We have a treasure trove of information, but the challenge is putting it out in a way that everyone can consume it.”

Both DC and Maine are looking for ways to engage with private companies to spur innovation. As they noted, what they are doing takes time because they are working within budget constraints and, potentially, a lack of knowledge about what data is there and how to share it safely between agencies and with the public.

In addition, Fung noted that there has to be a culture change, “everyone has the challenge of culture change. We have to protect data, but be willing to open it up to each other,” he said. “The key is to make sure you communicate the value that open data provides and how it can benefit people day to day to help solve challenges that the agency may face.”

There are certainly some challenges to be overcome, including building an infrastructure that can support the quantity of data and foster data sharing and interoperability.  But, with the right technology partner those challenges become less onerous and the benefits that can be realized – from the efficient delivery of emergency medical care to reducing school absenteeism – are limitless.

Interested in learning more?  You can find insight and guidance on how to manage, store, and analyze structured and unstructured data here.