Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | February 15, 2016
O’Malley, more than almost any other elected official, is known for believing in the power of “big data.”
It started when he served as mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007 and implemented the CitiStat program. The initiative, considered groundbreaking at the time, relied on data analytics to foster accountability and problem-solving in government. When he served as Maryland governor from 2007 to 2015, he continued that work at the state level through his StateStat program.
At the time, the concept was considered novel. Today, cities across the U.S. and the world widely recognize the value of data in improving city operations.
Last year, O’Malley spoke with the Urban Edge podcast about the power of data and his new gig: chairman of the advisory board of the MetroLab Network, which works to promote data collaboration between cities and universities (the Kinder Institute and Rice University are members, along with the City of Houston). Edited portions of that interview appear below.
Tell me about what you are doing in Houston and about your work with the MetroLab Network.
It’s an association of 34 leading cities and their university partners that are committed to the research, development and deployment of oftentimes new technological or big data solutions to city challenges. It’s an open innovation collaborative so cities can learn from one another. An example is alleviating traffic challenges by creating more dynamic traffic signalization systems that sense the traffic, rather than sending people up in bucket trucks to adjust the timers. For Houston, it could be the intersection of gray infrastructure and green infrastructure when it comes to stormwater management. Another is using better big data approaches to examine human services intervention when it comes to the most vulnerable families and kids.
And of course, it’s about sensors. Houston was a pioneer in this, so we have real-time information on temperature and air quality. You can notify people with asthma when it’s a dangerous period of the day. It’s a movement to more intelligent, responsive, connected and compassionate systems that make cities more livable places for more people.
What drew you to this role?
It’s only with enlightened leadership that these partnerships can come together and solve these problems. Look at the analytical strengths that universities can bring to mayors. It’s not like mayors are rolling in cash. It’s not like cities have budget surpluses. Their populations are growing, and their revenues are usually flatlined.
So, the opportunity is there, I believe, and the time has arrived with open data to bring about better partnerships and make our cities more livable places. We can create a living environment that’s healthier and more enjoyable than the paved-over environments of our past.
What was the reaction when you first started pitching this data-driven approach in Baltimore?
The system, CitiStat, measured not just the inputs of government – which is really just a budget. We flipped the script. And we did it to survive. We measured the outputs of government. How quickly could we fill the pothole? How quickly could we fix up the abandoned property? We mapped everything.
From that, the pictures emerged, and most importantly, the leaders emerged within the organization. In solid waste, for example, you measure overtime, tonnage collected, and citizen complaints. A picture emerges. You can see among the boroughs which is the highest performing and which is the lowest, and you can use that example — the managed competition — to lift up the leader and get the other crews to learn from him.
Initially, the bureaucracy thought this was a passing fad and I’d get bored. But we stayed at it. And soon they realized this was not going away, and it was a new way of getting things done.
Give me some examples of things you wouldn’t have known about if you hadn’t looked at the data.
Our city lost more population in the 30 years leading up to 1999 than any other city in America. When people abandon homes, they don’t leave behind an annuity to clean the house or take care of the tall grass. We had a huge backlog of opened, abandoned houses that would shock the eyes of most Americans. If citizens called and said this house was a nuisance, the city had a one-year backlog.
We had two separate crews. One would clean it, the other would come by in the next few days to board it up. But often, when they showed up the boards, it had been trashed again. So we formed integrated crews. We found it was important in some places to brick up the door instead of just boarding it up. Those tweaks, over time, allowed us to get the backlog down. But it was a matter of constant iterations and trying new approaches.
Eventually, the city staff realized this was an outstanding opportunity for leaders to meet with the mayor, in front of his command staff, and untangle the things that prevented them from doing their job well.
Can you give me an example? What did they untangle?
Because of a budget crunch we used to eliminate positions when they became vacant. From the perspective of a finance director, that makes sense. If the position is vacant, it’s better than laying someone off. But the work still has to get done, so the department head would have to hire a temp. The temporary employee is harder to manage, much less reliable, and so you’d have to pay overtime to other employees to make up for the lower-performing temp. And you multiple that time and time again, it really messed up the operations.
By meeting every two weeks, and having that sort of interchange between the frontline people and the citywide people responsible for balancing the budget and keeping the ship of state on an even keel, it allowed us to peel back the layers, or cobwebs, that slowed the agencies down from performing.