Making Data the Catalyst to Government Innovation


Crafting things of Value: A 3-step program

There is quite a bit of writing these days about how data is the catalyst to government innovation. Over the last several years, the conversation has turned – maybe matured is the better word – towards how the innovation needed to face the 21st-century challenges requires us to get these data conversations right.

Stephen Goldsmith calls it the “data gap” or that space between a city’s desire, versus their ability to implement evidence-based practices and workflow improvements. Up to now, much of the work in this area was the realm of the very largest cities. These frontrunners have documented many successes. These successes illustrate how the lives of citizens have improved within their cities. It is now apparent how these improvements have come through the exploitation of the city’s own data, prompting cities of all sizes to join this critical movement.

Across the United States, government leaders are realizing the power of data to deliver the understanding needed to drive better results. Being data driven is not about producing canned reports for the mayor or the county council every few weeks. So, how do we move forward?

Step 1: Look at data as an unexploited resource

If our community owned a gold mine, wouldn’t we mine it? Ok, a gold mine is unlikely, but a sand and gravel pit, maybe. Intuitively, we know there is value in such a common, unremarkable material – an under-appreciated value, but value all the same. I believe that we look at our data the same way: the data collected via our 311 systems; data collected when we register our car; and the data we enter into spreadsheets to balance our cities budget. Like sand, it appears to us as a common and an unremarkable material.

Imagine each cell in your spreadsheet as a grain of sand. Now ask yourself, “Of all the spreadsheets and data files that I use, how much sand do I own and maintain?” Gather up the various imaginary piles of sand in your agency, in your department, in your entire organization. There is much to be done with sand; we use it in construction, we use it on our icy streets, we can make lovely sand castles during our vacations at the beach. But what happens to that sand castle when we go home and the tide comes in? Used in its unimproved form, data – like sand – has some value but this value is minimal. Theres is still, however, much more to be done with sand.

Step 2: Energy and skill transformation

Taking this sand analogy a little further, the true value in this unremarkable material reveals itself when energy and skill are applied. Add energy to sand — silica — and one gets glass. Add skill and expertise and one gets glass that can be used for drinking vessels, a window pane or car windshields.

The same holds true of our data. Add a little energy in the collection, upkeep and storage of our data and we start to create information and the beginnings of knowledge. There is no longer any doubt that a data approach can drive day-to-day improvements in our operations and decision making.

The potential of improved citizen engagement through these data efforts is huge. Our elected officials now have the ability to share not only the data, but also the insight the data provides with citizens. I’m sorry to say that today, this is where most of our data efforts end. Most often, the dashboards and infographics that are supplied to our policy leaders are just that: the beginnings of knowledge.

Step 3: Craftmanship

As the definition tells us, a craftsman is a person who practices or is highly skilled in a craft; an artisan. With craftsmanship, one can take sand and build cathedrals or telescope lenses to study far-off stars. In the case of data, we call these craftsmen data stewards – better yet, data scientists. These data scientists are more than just skilled in the use of spreadsheets and infographics. These craftsmen guide the collection and maintenance of data in the key areas of consistency, accessibility, comprehensiveness, trustworthiness and degree of interest.

These data scientists apply the rigors of statistical methods to the analysis that connects people, process and ideas that have the potential to change how our cities are designed, grow and operate. These craftsmen have the ability to move this unremarkable material that we call data into valuable information products and knowledge. In turn, these information products and knowledge help identify actionable points of intersection where our public leaders can be truly effective.

The City of Los Angeles has created a project that has taken their unremarkable material –  their city’s data – and stimulated more government innovation. They call it the GeoHub. The GeoHub gives city staff, businesses, app developers, nonprofit organizations and the public access to the city’s spatial and non-spatial data. It is the platform for improving inter-departmental communication, civic engagement and governmental performance by making this previously unremarkable material more usable. LA’s GeoHub is serving as a blueprint for other cities looking to improve data access across departments and with the public, crafting information products of value.

Any city can employ craftsmen – data scientists – to create helpful products out of their data, much like LA. These products change the way people, technology and cities interact and close the data gap, helping the very people who provide it. And isn’t that the reason we collect the data in the first place?


Richard Leadbeater is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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Ghermay Araya

This is a timely article. taking us from talking about “Data Science” to doing something about it in a step by step way at a high level for decision makers..