4 tactics cities use for better management

4 tactics cities use for better management

Rare is the city that can't find room for improvement in the services it provides its citizens. The trick, of course, is finding ways to do so that are both effective and affordable.

A new report by the IBM Center for The Business of Government looked at cities that have cracked that code, and offers a how-to guide of sorts for other municipalities.

“Increasingly, cities are the public sector service delivery engines in the United States,” write the authors of “Using Innovation and Technology to Improve City Services.” Whether that's because of flexible budgets, community activism or locally-based collaboration, cities are leveraging IT for better management, citizen engagement and service -- and four key trends in cities’ use of IT for improved service delivery stood out:

1. Opening data

Many cities are making data more accessible through open data initiatives, in which government agencies release electronic versions of documents or machine-readable data in one central location. Often organized by theme and usually featuring data visualization tools, open data can include geographic information, chemical and environmental data, building construction data, health and economic indicators and information from the private and nonprofit sectors.  Open data can also benefit public sector employees as large datasets are housed in one place, which saves time searching for information.

Tapping the creativity and knowledge of citizen developers with hackathons and challenges gives cities a way to “mine data and develop code or technology to promote public engagement and improve city services,” the report said.  Seattle turned to the local tech community recently when it hosted a hackathon to more quickly redact footage captured from police body cameras.  In New York City’s Big Apps NYC challenge, teams competed for cash prizes by building innovative projects. Heat Seek NYC, the 2014 winning app, is a suite of open-source hardware and web software that detects heating violations in real time. The data from the app helps tenants track and report the temperature in their homes, identify problem areas and provide reliable evidence to ensure fairness in disputes with landlords.

2. Increasing public engagement

Cities are using crowdsourcing or crowdfunding solicit ideas as well as local funding.  Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Kickstarter are more conducive to informal discussions and broad invitations can be posted.  Crowdsourcing can also be used to collect information on a particular topic. PhillyTreeMap is a wiki-style database that lets contributors collaboratively create an accurate and informative inventory of local trees. Boston’s Street Bump app collects data about the smoothness of the ride from drivers’ smartphones, which gives the city real-time information it uses to fix problems and plan long-term investments.

Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce, meanwhile, partnered with Kiva Zip to crowdfund small businesses in the city. Entrepreneurs can now access interest-free loans via PayPal accounts, with the capital coming from a global online community of investors who contribute to individual projects. 

3. Tracking performance

Other cities, according to the report,  are using data tracking and management tools, such as CitiStat, or to track performance in an effort to evaluate efficiency and effectiveness of city services. 

Washington D.C.’s Grade.DC.Gov site allows residents to grade city services and see how others rated services such as response time, trash collection and snow removal. Feedback is collected from the website and combined with data from comments posted on social media sites like Twitter. This data allows the DC government to form a grade for each agency, and helps inform DC’s decision-making processes and improve service to the citizen.

Mobile apps have also been enlisted for tracking and reporting.  For non-emergency incidents, cities have developed and utilized 311 apps the take advantage of the smartphone’s camera and GPS to report, photograph, map, and submit information on graffiti, potholes, flooding and other issues.   

4. Enhancing services

Municipalities are increasingly using technology to enhance their own services.  Whether it be sustainable city initiatives, transportation services, permit issuances or increasing public participation in city land planning and capital improvements, mobile apps, open data and records management systems are taking an active role in improving service to the citizen. 

To promote participation in environmental sustainability efforts, for example, cities have “developed apps for tracking energy, water, land, and municipal facility use, parking and transportation activity, and recycling and conservation efforts,” the report stated.  With the availability of more transportation data, citizens will begin to see improvements in parking and bike sharing as well as better planning given more access to maps and routes.  To ameliorate the lengthy permit process, many cities are turning to mobile applications to identify, apply for and track various types of permits.

Read “Using Innovation and Technology to Improve City Services” here.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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