Developing data to improve municipal performance – Canadian Government Executive

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December 17, 2013

Developing data to improve municipal performance

The challenges city leaders now face require creativity and innovation. Many are beginning to realize cities can be better places to live and work if they embed intelligence into their operations – information and communication technology that offers the possibility to understand and diagnose problems and reveal solutions.

For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. What’s more, experts predict the world’s urban population will double by 2050.

Population growth is driving increases in power and water needs, traffic congestion, and social service requirements. Along with declining budgets and shifting demographics, cities are also grappling with aging infrastructure. Already cities lose as much as 20 percent of their water supply due to infrastructure leaks, consume an estimated 75 percent of the world’s energy and emit more than 80 percent of greenhouse gases.

While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, cities are already using information and communication technology that offers a way to move forward. Rio de Janeiro, in preparation for next year’s World Cup and the Olympics in 2016, has built a City Operations Center where data streaming in from video cameras, news reports, weather maps and emergency call centers has been integrated and made available to meteorologists, police and emergency crews, to better manage flash flooding and other emergency situations.

New York City’s “City Connected” initiative uses technology to make the city’s government more accessible and accountable. The successful phone system, where residents dial “311” to report routine issues such as missed garbage pickups – saving “911” for true emergencies – has been expanded to online, smartphone and use of Global Positioning Systems to report quality-of-life issues.

But for many cities – those here in Canada among them – executing a transformational change such as these seems a daunting task. Where do you start? What problem do you tackle first?

These were some of the questions leaders in Edmonton, Alberta and Surrey, British Columbia, were asking when they applied for a unique grant program aimed at helping cities work better.

Edmonton and Surrey – along with Quebec City, Ottawa and Waterloo – are the only Canadian cities to win a Smarter Cities Challenge grant. The company awarded a total of $50 million worth of technology and services to 100 municipalities worldwide in 2013, and recently announced an extension to the program to allow municipalities and regions to apply for grants in 2014.

Edmonton and Surrey’s experiences prove that despite constrained resources, there are ways cities can improve service and save money.

Edmonton has adopted a mission to be the global leader in urban traffic safety. Not only has it made significant investments in state-of-the-art road safety technology, it has established a dedicated Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) that is renowned worldwide for its work and leadership. OTS works with a research chair at the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Police Service (EPS). Through their collaborative efforts, OTS and EPS use intelligent automated enforcement data analytics to identify and apprehend high-risk drivers, prioritizing and deploying resources based on those analytics. This initiative has expanded to include regional law enforcement partners like the RCMP, ensuring multi-jurisdictional high-risk drivers are identified and appropriately dealt with through a seamless approach.

Over the past five years, there have been significant reductions in collisions on Edmonton’s streets, but there is still a long way to go. Edmonton’s leaders have a vision for an integrated and responsive transport system and sustainable land use, which encourages multi-modal transportation – freight, roads, rail, buses, sidewalks and light rail transit – to ensure the efficient and safe movement of its citizens.

“The Smarter Cities initiative helped reinforce our vision to be a global leader in urban traffic safety,” says Gerry Shimko, OTS’s executive director. “The development, implementation, and use of advanced data analytics shaped our strategic, tactical, and operational efficiency and effectiveness through use of key performance indicators. This initiative will now be used to leverage the city’s new leadership culture and innovative analytical technologies to envision and build a Transportation Intelligence Centre which will optimize our resources in real time and through situational awareness.”

For Edmonton, the key lies in the ability to integrate various data sets from across static, real-time and dynamic data sources. City leaders found that level of information-sharing requires openness in government agencies and data, the creation of an Analytics Center of Excellence to support road safety, simplifying internal traffic safety measurements, reaching out to citizens through social media, and continuing their collaborating with industry leaders and academia.

Surrey, due to its rapid population growth – 28 percent over the past 10 years – is evolving into the next metropolitan centre of B.C. It is not only one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, but also one of the youngest, with one-third of its population under the age of 19, and more than 70,000 students. It has the highest birth rate and the largest school district in the province. City leaders wanted to understand how to sustain a healthy community through specific projects aimed at youth and early childhood development.

Surrey recognized a need to introduce data-driven analysis and decision-making for targeting those investments that impact early childhood, with the end result of preventing the need for future spending in remediation and policing. They understood this approach required better sharing of information across service providers, funders and supporters.

For their project, Surrey focused on children ages 0-5 and examined childcare, health and nutrition, safety, community and culture, socialization, and physical activity. Many stakeholders – and funders – impact these formative years, but all had a desire and willingness to partner and coordinate efforts to better address the fundamental needs of young children: a safe, healthy and nurturing home; available and affordable quality childcare; and access to appropriate programs and services to prepare them for school.

“One of the most exciting parts of this project was how broad the stakeholders were,” says Laurie Cavan, general manager of parks, recreation and culture for the City of Surrey. “The planning and development department, because of growth trends, projections for growth in communities, contributed. Engineering wanted to be involved, as transportation links people to resources and can enhance or be barriers to opportunities. We worked with our IT department to gather information from across the city. The RCMP were interested in how we could impact positive outcomes for children, youth and families. The fire department, libraries, every department in the city felt that there was a role or learning they could contribute by being engaged in the process.”

Surrey discovered that while a wealth of services and programs exist for the age group, because they are delivered or managed by a broad range of providers, challenges exist around overlapping of services, awareness and in matching programs to the specific needs of individual families.

“The project helped ensure we were all working toward the same vision, as it facilitated diverse work groups within the city coming together to improve outcomes for children and young families,” says Cavan. “It also made us realize we need to rely more on gathering and sharing data from multiple programs across the city. We’re now looking more at open data and how that can be used to make better decisions.”

The projects in Edmonton and Surrey demonstrate that while every city’s challenges have unique elements, common themes emerge. First, municipal departments frequently do not integrate and collaborate on efforts and share data. Second, the advanced analysis of disparate data sets can be the starting point to asking better questions and finding efficient and effective integrative and collaborative solutions.

The good news is that with new, smarter technologies and the right processes to measure progress and performance, cities can tackle some of their greatest challenges. Analytics can provide a much more comprehensive view of what’s happening, letting cities look at things they couldn’t see before.

The effects of policies can be assessed more accurately. Intelligent cities can be equipped with a command center with video walls that can display real-time pictures and graphics of troubles ranging from traffic jams, broken water mains, crimes and air quality. Geospatial mapping lets cities investigate childhood asthma clusters with heavy traffic and air quality.

Metropolitan areas around the world are big and getting bigger and consequently, so are their problems. Most already collect massive amounts of data: it just needs to be put to better use. Not too long ago, urban challenges were viewed in a vacuum, where each issue was examined independently with minimal consideration of its impact on other areas. As Surrey and Edmonton have proven, we need to start thinking differently.

 

SIDEBAR
The City of Edmonton has posted a webpage describing IBM’s activities and areas of focus during the Smarter Cities Challenge engagement (www.gov.edmonton.ab.ca). The entire report is accessible from this page. In addition to the report, the city has published an update on its progress in implementing the recommendations provided during the engagement. Surrey’s Smarter Cities Challenge report is also available (www.surrey.ca).

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