Want a Smart City? Hire a Chief Analytics Officer

Probing deeply into big data and pinpointing solutions to important problems demand a chief analytics officer (CAO) rather than a chief data officer (CDO). Both are essential to a smart city or smart business, but they are quite different.

Cities are undergoing digital transformation with ever-increasing ways to capture data —from connected streetlights to CCTVs to traffic flow and collision information transmitted from smart roads. But many cities fall short of their digital potential because they focus on collecting and using that data in narrow, traditional ways.

A truly smart city goes beyond these, improving quality of life and the climate for business by analyzing data in service of specific challenges and using it to make good decisions in real time on a range of critical issues, from public safety to open data to economic investment.

Smart City, Efficient City

Smart cities use location-driven analysis and ground truthing (testing expectations by observing conditions on the ground) to understand where things are happening — even where they are likely to happen. This empowers government agencies to address issues more efficiently, even as it improves quality of life — for example, by helping safeguard firefighters or keeping bad landlords from forcing good tenants out of their apartments.

In this case, I speak with firsthand knowledge. I was the chief analytics officer for New York City; it was—and remains—the only city with a CAO. In fact, the title and nature of the duties are so new that there are relatively few CAOs in the private sector, even though many businesses rely on analytics to increase operational efficiency and boost sales.

The company or city that understands the strategic capability that CAOs and their team can bring will gain an economic advantage through the ability to resolve pressing issues quickly. By efficiently untangling problems, a company can become more profitable and a city safer and more livable, prosperous and attractive to residents, tourists and new businesses. It is not at all surprising that several recent articles indicate that the number of CAOs in the private sector and the number of cities with analytics teams are starting to grow.

Characteristics of Top Analytics Teams

There are no college degrees or majors dedicated to producing analytics officers. But we now know from experience what type of people you need to staff an analytics team – adept at going down unexplored paths in pursuit of answers.

In a crowded, complicated city like New York, where health, economic or social problems can quickly multiply, data analysis cannot become a years-long doctoral thesis. It often is a life-or-death matter that demands quick answers. Getting things done in New York meant jumping in to attack problems that threatened residents’ health, safety and quality of life, and analyzing those issues on the run.

Members of a CAO team need to know how to talk with lawyers, police, firefighters, renters, landlords, doctors, nurses and city officials in all manner of departments and bureaus. Those same people need to understand something of the ways that economics, social trends and politics can affect the problem, and be willing to explore new avenues of inquiry.

The people doing this work for cities or businesses — especially the leaders of analytics departments — must be curious, quick on their feet, able to speak the language of other experts, creative in their approaches, aggressive in their pursuit of the right data, and able to use location analysis to bolster their findings.

When a smart city assembles such a team of problem solvers, the result is improved efficiency and money saved for taxpayers. In the case of the NYC firefighters and the illegally renovated buildings, these analytical efforts helped save lives and prevent injuries. I’m proud of that work. I know that many other cities can create similarly skilled teams and generate similar results.

Building Your Analytics Team

In addition to the curious, aggressive, flexible people I talked about above, smart cities really do need a strong data team, which begins with a good chief data officer. A CDO doesn’t compete with a chief analytics officer. They complement each other.

You can’t pull great answers out of poorly organized data. Your CDO, whether in the public or private sector, needs to make sure that the categories of data fit the organization and are readily accessible to those searching for answers to urgent problems. Citywide problems will cut across departmental lines, so the easier the access and the wider the data sharing, the better the outcomes.

Most companies and cities have huge stores of data, but that information may simply sit there, like volumes of neatly stacked encyclopedias. A skilled analytics team, led by a chief analytics officer, can draw on that data to improve efficiency in solving problems and strengthen decision-making.

I’ll be speaking at the CDO Summit in New York City next week and can’t wait to talk to my colleagues about how far we have come, and how much further we can going to go by working together.

Amen Ra Mashariki is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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