Getting into the Numbers: Empowering the City with Data

Photo via François Rejeté

Like a machine, our cities are made up of a variety of moving parts—needing maintenance and upkeep to run properly. Our cars have convenient dashboards that alert us when the oil is running low or our engines are malfunctioning. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a method or technology that allow cities to monitor where problems are occurring? Better yet, a handbook that tell us what exactly we should be doing proactively to prevent any future issues?

Having benchmarks for action allows us to understand where improvements can be made and forces us to face accountability head-on.  More and more organizations and startups are trying to find ways to leverage the incredible amount of data we have at our disposal in this technological era.

Choosing the right metrics is what will make a set of benchmarks meaningful and useful, and will of course change with a given audience or focus. Defining a concept like misery or livability, too, can lead to challenges, as well as arguments concerning methodology and relevance. Just because a concept is impossible to capture entirely doesn’t mean that it isn’t a worthwhile endeavor. The truth of the matter is, though, that numbers don’t always tell the whole story—but they can play a very important role in the ability to change it.

Most important to understanding the power of benchmarks, however, is focusing on how and to whom they are useful. Merely ranking cities against one another isn’t necessarily meaningful. Being dubbed the most miserable city in America certainly doesn’t provoke any inspiring thought or action. When cities are given a set of benchmarks paired with the potential for change, however, our decisions become even more powerful.

For example, a new startup has developed analytics dashboard that tracks how well cities are performing in terms of services like fixing potholes and picking up trash. The City Vitals research that CEOs for Cities has conducted looks at a broad range of metrics in the 51 largest metro regions of the United States to equip them with the means to become more competitive and vibrant—using measurements from the solid, such as college attainment, to the less easily defined weirdness index or internet search variety.

Linking these resources to the decision-makers in the community will be the successful element to this equation, and with increasing cuts in the budgets of cities and municipalities, having ready access to useful data will be incredibly valuable. As these entities face decreasing resources to conduct this research in house, it will become even more important to increase the efficiency and properly align the focus of our agencies and offices.

Using data to organize goals and action, too, is essential. Tracking and benchmarking gives us a good understanding of what goals are attainable—and what influence action can have. Any researcher who has conducted an economic impact study understands that action has a certain “butterfly effect” or multiplier. Our City Dividends demonstrate that tipping the needle on a particular metric can have a serious economic impact. Recognizing where returns on our city investments lie can lead to a greater likelihood of actually making a difference.

What are some other ways benchmarking has helped you or your organization in achieving or framing its goals?


Numbers don't always tell the whole story, but play an important role in the ability to change it. 

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